The two special congressional elections that have taken place over the last two weeks are warning shots across the bow of the Republican Party as it heads toward 2018 and 2020. Yes, they achieved historic wins in the November 2016 elections, but elections go in cycles. We lived through the era of a permanent Republican majority envisioned by Karl Rove, and a permanent majority for Democrats envisioned by political scientists. Neither of those things came true, and echoes of the 2006 midterm elections that brought the Bush majority down are what Republicans have most to fear now.
Ron Estes won his race to fill now-CIA director Mike Pompeo’s seat in Congress by a vote of 53 percent to 46 percent. That sounds like a comfortable victory, but Pompeo had won his last election by more than 30 points, and it was a district that President Trump won in November by 27 points. “A win is a win,” some may say, but margin of victory matters for predicting future performance — and this was much narrower than it would be in a healthy environment for the GOP.
Second, Democrat Jon Ossoff won a plurality of votes and is sending Georgia’s 6th congressional district — a seat open due to former Rep. Tom Price becoming Secretary of Health and Human Services — to a runoff against Republican Karen Handel. Price had been handily winning his seat year after year before joining the Trump administration, but this congressional district is exactly where Republicans have been losing ground in recent years. It has lots of white college graduates, who turned strong against Republicans in 2016. Trump won the district by less than 2 percentage points in November.
Ossoff may still come up short in the runoff, but two congressional seats that have gone consistently for Republicans by more than 20 percentage points turning into close races is news: the structural electoral politics are going to favor Democrats in 2018, and it’s time for Republicans to get worried.
What have Democrats done or plan to do in any kind of self-examination after 2016? The answer has seemed to be: nothing. Come the next big round of national elections, it seems unlikely that there are going to be major changes to the Democratic party platform, and they still may sweep into Congress anyway.
This is exactly how parties have regained power in the past.
Democrats in the George W. Bush era struggled to come up with any kind of cohesive message beyond pure opposition to the president, and voters rewarded them with an enormous swing in Congress in 2006. The same goes for Republicans in the Obama era, and they won massively during both of Obama’s midterm elections, taking Congress, and then nominated a presidential candidate who explicitly rejected the reforms that the Republican National Committee laid out in its 2012 “autopsy” of how Republicans had to change their platform in order to win back power.
Democrats will likely need to do little more than pure opposition to Trump in order to win back big parts of power at the federal level.
Conservative radio host Mark Levin called the Kansas and Georgia races “the canary in the coal mine” for the GOP moving forward: the electoral tide is turning against Republicans. The last 10 years of electoral politics prove that anti-incumbency is a powerful force, and the only thing Democrats have to do is oppose the incumbents to capitalize on that. It’ll be much harder for Republicans to press their advantage, much less maintain their majorities.
2018 looms large, and it would be very surprising to see the next Democratic presidential candidate cede much in their platform to either the Sanders wing or the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. Democrats will likely be able to win back power without changing a single thing except the name at the top of the ticket.
Kevin Glass (@KevinWGlass) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. Previously he was director of outreach and policy at The Franklin Center and managing editor at Townhall. His views here are his own.
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