ATLANTA — Five months into Donald Trump’s presidency, five closely-watched races. And Republicans aren’t any worse off for all the chaos, controversy and low poll ratings that have defined Trump’s tenure.
After special election wins in Kansas, Montana, and finally the most expensive House race ever in Georgia on Tuesday, the GOP ends the opening stretch of Trump’s presidency confident that Democrats’ plans of a grand comeback have yet to get off the ground.
Reeling after their loss in Atlanta’s suburbs, Democrats are nevertheless claiming moral victory and reminding themselves to remain confident in their consistent over-performances in the House races compared to 2016 results — and in the strong candidates produced by the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial primaries.
With 2018’s midterm elections looming, here are POLITICO’s seven takeaways from the first five months — and first five high-profile races — of the Trump era:
If the House is in play, Democrats still need to prove it
Republicans acknowledge that the 2018 elections will be a difficult grind and their House majority may be vulnerable. But for all the grassroots energy and torrid fundraising, Democrats still haven’t proved they can actually win.
After swinging the vote roughly 20 points to the left but still coming short in heavily Republican districts in Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, and Georgia, Democrats have announced a wide range of potentially strong candidates in districts all across the country — some in areas where Trump’s unpopularity has changed the landscape, and others in long-time Democratic target zones.
But the repeated special election losses are taking a toll: Democratic disappointment is acute, particularly after Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff’s defeat to Karen Handel.
For now, the Democratic plan looks like a slightly more aggressive version of the standard playbook for a new president’s first midterm, when the party in control of the White House traditionally loses ground. But with both parties still working out how to position themselves with respect to the White House, operatives on both sides will closely study what it would actually take for Democrats to win the 24 seats they’d need to win back control of the House.
“We not only have to point out why Donald Trump is abysmal for America, we have to point out what we stand for as Democrats,” warned Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez.
But, he said, "Look at the Georgia race, and Tom Price won that [seat] by 24 points, a Democrat hasn’t won the Sixth [District] in Georgia in over 30 years. None of these races, in theory, should have been close because they’re solid red districts, whether it was Kansas, whether it was South Carolina, whether it was Montana.”
Republican candidates need a personal Trump strategy
Running for Montana’s at large seat last month, Republican Greg Gianforte barely went 10 minutes without mentioning Trump, whose stickers, hats, and banners adorned the eventual winner’s events for months. Handel, running in a suburban seat, took another path: she went to great lengths to avoid the White House. She didn’t mention the president’s name once during her pair of election eve speeches on Monday, and it worked for her.
If the early days of 2017 have taught Republican candidates anything, it’s that they need a strategy to deal with their mercurial president, and they need to stick to it.
While the president’s popularity fluctuates from state to state and district to district, the Republican candidates who have had the hardest times have been the ones whose posture toward the president have been the vaguest. Virginia’s Ed Gillespie struggled mightily against Corey Stewart, for example, after Gillespie talked tepidly about the White House and Stewart embraced it wholeheartedly.
The establishment isn’t dead yet
One of the most surprising results of all this year: not one of the elections featured a Trump-like surprise outcome.
Virginia came closest, when Stewart nearly took down Gillespie. But in race after race and in both parties, the party leadership’s pick prevailed in their primary, suggesting that the political upheaval that marked 2016 may not be replicable.
That isn’t necessarily sitting well with party activists on either side. Stewart, for one, has refused to publicly support Gillespie.
On the Democratic side, where party rifts are front-and-center, some progressives have used the establishment’s victories as evidence that the party needs fixing — and as explanations for Democratic losses.
“Tonight’s result is disheartening to everyone who volunteered to help out another Democrat in Congress. The unforced errors by the party leadership and the campaign present an important learning opportunity for everyone who wants to kick Republicans out of power in 2018,” said Jim Dean, the chairman of Democracy For America, in a statement on Tuesday night. “Defeating Republicans in districts that they have traditionally held requires doing something drastically different than establishment Democrats have done before — specifically, running on a bold progressive vision and investing heavily in direct voter contact to expand the electorate. That’s what it will take to win districts like this one in 2018 and take back the House. The same, tired centrist Democratic playbook that has come up short cycle after cycle will not suffice.”
Democrats still don’t have a message
Much of the Democratic Party’s energy in 2017 is driven by hatred of the White House, and the president’s dismal approval ratings have given them hope that an anti-Trump message will carry them close to a House majority in 2018.
But the party is still struggling to find a clear and convincing message that can break through in these races, after Bernie Sanders-style populist Rob Quist fell short in Montana and the moderate Ossoff came only slightly closer in Georgia. Anti-Trump sentiment from base voters wasn’t enough to push them over the edge in districts that also contain plenty of moderates, and Democratic frustration with the inability to connect has started to bubble over.
That message was clear from progressive activists exasperated by the result in Georgia.
“In the closing weeks of the race, Ossoff and the DCCC missed an opportunity to make Republicans’ attack on health care the key issue, and instead attempted to portray Ossoff as a centrist, focusing on cutting spending and coming out [in] opposition to Medicare for All,” said MoveOn.org executive director Anna Galland in a Tuesday night statement. “This approach did not prove a recipe for electoral success. Democrats will not win back power merely by serving as an alternative to Trump and Republicans."
Health care isn’t a silver bullet — not yet at least
There was no greater indication of health care’s political salience — and combustibility — than when an exasperated Gianforte assaulted a reporter trying to ask him about Obamacare repeal’s effects just hours before he won his race in Montana last month.
To many Democrats, outbursts like that and polls showing that Republican’s American Health Care Act is deeply unpopular suggest that turning 2018 into a health care referendum might be their best bet. But even as Senate Republicans rush to get a vote through on their version of the bill, that hypothesis hasn’t really been tested.
In the closing days of Georgia’s race, the repeal effort was hardly front-and-center, and other issues dominated the races in Montana and Kansas. Furthermore, few of the candidates’ ads focused entirely on the issue.
That suggests the battle lines are still being drawn — and that Democrats are still figuring out the best way to leverage an issue that Republicans have spent years talking about.
As Republicans see it, that’s a symptom of Democratic leaders’ inability to coalesce around a single message ahead of the midterms: “What we’ve learned so far this year, I would argue, is you can define a Democrat as somebody who complains about the president, wants to raise your taxes, and loses elections,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Paul Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC. “The Democratic Party has no agenda, has no ideas."
The Trump-era battleground: Suburbia
In 2016, Trump’s weakness among highly educated women voters, particularly in suburban areas, led to a diminished performance in some historically Republican areas. If the results of this year’s races and the expected top 2018 battleground districts are any indication, more affluent suburbs may be moving to the front of the political stage.
The competitive race in Atlanta’s leafy suburbs, where Trump won by just one point in 2016 after Republican nominees had carried it easily for years, was just one piece of the story. In both Virginia and New Jersey — states with large suburban populations — Democratic turnout surged in those areas.
Many of the GOP-held House races expected to draw the most attention in 2018 are in similarly situated areas in places like California, Texas, and New Jersey. Democrats have yet to prove anti-Trump fervor is enough to swing districts where the president is viewed skeptically at best — like in metro Atlanta — but at least they know the location of his soft spot.
“There’s no doubt that the president’s numbers in these places are bad, and there was a swing away from him in the  election. It wasn’t enough to make up for the rural places but it was real, so the million-dollar question is how far Democrats can push that,” said Democratic pollster Nick Gourevitch. “Can they push what happened in 2016 even further? We don’t know, but certainly there’s opportunity there.”
The GOP base is still with Trump
Much has been made of Trump’s historically low approval ratings. But he remains popular among base Republicans, and far more popular than any alternative at the moment.
In her suburban district, Handel avoided saying the president’s name altogether most days. But she didn’t entirely shun him either. What worked for her was an anti-Democratic message that was enough to fire up Republicans who trickled into her events wearing Trump hats and buttons. And though she didn’t even say the word “Trump” on election night, her mention of “The President of the United States” drew the loudest cheers of all.
Handel’s victory on the back of big Republican turnout — combined with strong wins from more overtly pro-Trump candidates like Gianforte in Montana and South Carolina’s Ralph Norman — is simply more evidence that the GOP is nowhere near ready to break with the president.
“In 2016, Trump — according to the Democrats — was going to cost Republicans the House, and [he] didn’t,” said Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers. the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Now, in 2018, the Trump presidency was going to cost Republicans the House. And in four special elections, we’re 4-0 and they’re 0-4.”
Rachael Bade contributed to this report.