Special Elections, Same Old Mistakes for Democrats

Emmett Eldred Apr 9, 2017
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

While the 2016 elections might be (mercifully) over, there are still a few lingering special federal elections to take care of before we can finally wash our hands of the painful, messy practice of democracy. Five congressional seats are up for grabs in special elections over the next few months. Four of the five seats were vacated by Republicans appointed to positions in the Trump administration. Two of those seats, as well as a fifth seat vacated by former Rep. Xavier Becerra who became California’s Attorney General, are in uncompetitive districts. But the other two represent potential pick-up opportunities for Democrats looking to convert President Trump’s unpopularity into new seats in Congress. Unfortunately, Democrats are displaying some of the same short-sighted thinking that cost them big in 2016 and in other elections up and down the ballot since 2010.

The special election that has gotten most of the attention is in the sixth congressional district of Georgia, which represents parts of the northern suburbs of Atlanta. This seat was vacated by Tom Price, who became Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. The Democratic candidate is Jon Ossoff, a thirty-year-old documentary filmmaker and former congressional staffer for Civil Rights icon John Lewis. There are several Republican candidates, most notably former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and businessman Bob Gray. If no candidate wins an outright majority in the April 18 special election, then the winner will be decided in a run-off election a few weeks later between the top two finishers.

The other competitive election is for Montana’s at-large Congressional District. This seat was vacated by Ryan Zinke, who became Trump’s Secretary of the Interior. The Democratic Candidate is Bernie-backing populist Rob Quist, a popular Montana folk-singer with no political experience but a history of public service in Montana. The Republican candidate is Greg Gianforte, a businessman who was the Republican candidate for governor of Montana in 2016.

Everyone, from the media to Democratic activists, figures, and organizations, has focused their attention on the Georgia election. And this is understandable. For Democrats to have a chance at winning back the House of Representatives in 2018, they will need to win in districts like GA-6; suburban districts that lean Republican but have wealthy, well-educated, and generally socially liberal voters. And the anti-Trump sentiment is strong there. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by just 1.5 points, whereas Romney beat Obama in the same district by twenty-three points in 2012.

However, Democrats have been far too reluctant to spend any time, resources, or money in the Montana election. This is a huge mistake and one that is motivated by intraparty politics more than sensible strategy. According to a report by KTVH, a Montana news station, no major Democratic group or party campaign apparatus has shown any interest in Quist’s election. Even the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which is charged with helping staff and financing Democratic House campaigns, hasn’t spent a dime on outside expenditures supporting Quist or direct contributions to his campaign committee. They don’t even mention the race on their website. By comparison, the DCCC has supported Ossoff’s campaign by sending nine staffers, funding qualitative research, and contributing thousands of dollars.

With only two competitive races to focus on, it is hard to believe that the DCCC and other Democratic Party groups are ignoring Quist merely to prioritize allocation of their limited resources. After all, the DCCC has no trouble dispensing hundreds of staff members and millions of dollars to support dozens of competitive congressional races during regular election years. Rather, it seems like they are giving Quist the cold shoulder, repelled by his independent persona and insurgent political style. Quist is a political outsider, a populist who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary election and backs progressive ideas like a single payer healthcare system. He’s also willing to buck the party when it comes to issues like gun control, holding a much more pro-gun stance than the party’s. Tepid support from the national Democratic Party for progressives and party outsiders is nothing new, and it seems clear that they have little interest in supporting such a candidate this time around.

The Democratic Party has made this mistake time and again, and it has cost them big. For example, in 2016, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee shot itself in the foot in the key Pennsylvania Senate race by spending nearly $2 million on Katie McGinty during the primary campaign against Admiral Joe Sestak. It was clear that they were motivated at least in part by a grudge that they have held against Sestak since he challenged and defeated former Senator Arlen Specter in the 2010 Democratic Senate primary. Sestak eventually lost to Pat Toomey. But that $2 million would have likely secured victory for McGinty or Sestak during the general election. Is it possible that Democrats are making the same mistake yet again with Quist?

“But wait,” you might say, “isn’t Montana a super-Republican state? Might the Democrats not be supporting Quist simply because he doesn’t stand a chance?” Yes, Montana is a very Republican state, but it is wrong to assume that a Democrat can’t win this special election, especially one like Quist. In fact, Democrats have won fifty-five percent of statewide elections in Montana over the past twenty-five years, including the governor’s race in 2016 and a senate race in 2012. Montana voters split their tickets to vote for candidates from both parties more than voters in any other state. Meanwhile, Quist is exactly the type of Democrat who can win in Montana: an authentic and charismatic presence, a well-known and well-liked Montana figure, whose personality resonates with Montana’s rugged and folksy culture. Plus, Montana voters already demonstrated that they are willing to elect a Democrat over Gianforte, who lost to Democratic Governer Steve Bullock by four points in 2016. The only public poll conducted in the race so far shows Quist crushing Gianforte by seven points, a much stronger showing than any poll shows for Ossoff in his election.

By ignoring Quist, Democrats are throwing away a winnable race. They’re also squandering a valuable chance to build up momentum and campaign infrastructure in Montana, which they will need to defend Senator John Tester’s crucial and extremely vulnerable Senate seat in 2018. Additionally, they’re missing an opportunity to try out an unconventional candidate and campaign message that might help them compete in other rural districts in the future. Perhaps most importantly, they are once again alienating progressives within the party, opting to silence their base even though it may cost them a congressional seat. Democrats are ignoring Quist for all the wrong reasons, and it’s a strategic failure that the party should correct immediately.