A singing lawmaker: Rob Quist is the Democratic candidate in Montana’s special election next month. Special elections will soon set the tone for the 2018 campaign season.(Campaign photo)
Published April 17, 2017
Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports
Remember this: There is always another election. And the 2018 congressional elections already promise to be extraordinary.
Let’s look at the landscape so far. Last week voters in Kansas surprised Republicans by barely winning a district that’s supposed to be safe. President Donald J. Trump tweeted: “Great win in Kansas last night for Ron Estes, easily winning the Congressional race against the Dems, who spent heavily & predicted victory!” And, indeed, there was a late surge that had many Democrats thinking victory. But Kansas is a deep red state. The district was represented by Mike Pompeo, who’s now the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who won by a margin of 30 points. Trump’s margin in the same district was 27 points. And Tuesday? Estes won the district by less than seven percentage points.
The Washington Post points out that special elections are complicated. There are a lot of factors at work beyond voters view of the White House. “But a sharp shift to the left in even deep-red parts of the country has obvious implications for the GOP that this experiment simply lays bare: the potential for an electoral disaster,” the Post said.
The shift from a House managed by Paul Ryan to one led by Nancy Pelosi would have huge implications for the Trump administration — and certainly for federal-tribal relations and programs.
Was Kansas the beginning of something bigger? Look for more answers to emerge in Georgia this week and Montana in May.
Tuesday voters in suburban Atlanta will weigh in. That special election to replace Tom Price (the Health and Human Services Secretary) is a “blanket primary” meaning that all candidates run on the same ballot regardless of party. Then the top two positions — unless one wins 50 percent vote — will face each other again. A number of Republicans are splitting the conservative vote. The Democrat in the race is Jon Ossoff and he has been leading in polls from the low- to mid-40s. Enough to win this round, but not enough to win the seat. Yet. Or maybe.
At this point you can boil this race down to one question: Who will show up? If more Democrats than normal show up (by about nine points) they could win this seat on Tuesday. That’s still possible in June but more difficult in a one-on-one race.
Indian Country’s first judgement of the Trump administration comes in Montana on May 25. Montana voters will pick a replacement for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke defeated Denise Juneau to win re-election. Now the race is between a singing cowboy, Rob Quist, and a wealthy entrepreneur, Greg Gianforte, who lost the November race for governor.
But that’s only the headline race. What makes the Montana special election more interesting is that the Libertarian Party is also on the ballot, Mark Wicks, a rancher and writer from Inverness. At the same time: Other party candidates, including the Green Party and independents, did not get signatures to make the ballot.
So this will be a three-way race. Libertarians are more popular in Montana than any other state. (Indeed: I think one of the challenges for Juneau’s historic bid for Congress was that the Libertarians did not engage in a serious campaign. In the 2012 Senate race, Libertarian Mike Cox picked up nearly 7 percent of the vote in the race between Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Denny Rehberg.)
One important issue for Indian Country has yet to be resolved: The election process itself. Many county clerks and voting advocates have argued the special election is the ideal test for a vote-by-mail election (saving the state hundreds of thousands of dollars). However many in the Legislature argued that would give Democrats an advantage. The bill was killed. But Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock used an “amendatory veto” to revive the legislation. The Montana Legislature has not yet taken up that legislation even as county clerks move forward without a plan for a general mail ballot. I would love to see a major experiment with mail balloting for tribal communities. There is good data from Washington and Oregon that shows how effective mail ballots can be as a way to increase voter participation.
Back to the big picture. How would the Trump administration change in a world where Democrats control Congress? We actually might see a hint of that soon. The federal government must pass a new spending bill by the end of this month and it will likely be a coalition of Democrats working with Republicans to pass the measure. That means there will be funding for the Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, and other programs supported by Democrats. The Republican Congress has the same problem on a spending bill as it did in the health care debate; there are not enough votes to pass a conservative alternative.
And in the House Democrats are well-positioned by history. Remember the president’s party nearly always loses seats in the first election after winning the White House. In 2010 after Barack Obama’s historic election, his party lost 63 seats in the House and 6 seats in the Senate. And according to Gallup polling, since 1946, when presidents are above 50 percent approval, their party loses an average of 14 House seats compared with an average loss of 36 seats when presidents are below that mark. And President Trump remains far below that mark.
In 2016 there was a remarkable group of Native Americans running for the Congress. For that to happen again, in this next cycle, there needs to be a recruitment of candidates.
In Arizona, for example, Victoria Steele would be well-suited to run again against Rep. Martha McSally. McSally would have to defend Trump’s unpopularity in a swing district.
It would be interesting to see a strong Alaska Native candidate surface in Alaska against Rep. Don Young. Young was lucky that the health care bill failed when it did because he did not need to take a vote. He would have had to choose between his party and his state (Medicaid expansion works in Alaska and the House bill would have cost Alaskans more per person than any other state). He still may have to make that choice.
Ideally I would like to see younger candidates from Indian Country. Young people who could build innovative, digital campaigns instead of relying on what’s been done in the past in terms of fundraising and advertising.
This is why the special elections right are so important. Because win or lose in Kansas, Georgia, and Montana, it shows that the House is not cemented to Republican leadership. The 2018 election cycle will be very different than the one that moved Trump into the White House. And all it takes is for a few potential candidates to see the possible … and to think, “I can do that.”
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
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