As we learned from Scott Brown’s (R-MA) supermajority-breaking special election win in January of 2010, special elections can and sometimes do serve as harbingers for midterms.  There are three upcoming special elections to replace House members who have joined President Trump’s cabinet, and each is turning out to be unexpectedly challenging for the GOP, who are expecting a low turnout in the wake of the Republicans gaining control of both Congress and the White House.

Kansas, Georgia, and Montana will hold special elections this spring, and if the Democrats pick up one or more of these seats, their “resist we much” campaign will get a much-needed boost.

Kansas

On April 11, Kansas’ 4th Congressional district will vote to replace former representative and current CIA Director Mike Pompeo.  In a district President Trump won by 27 points in November, the sudden flurry of Republican activity in ad buys and expenditures seems to indicate the race may be too close for comfort.

Politico reports:

The NRCC is pouring money into a last-minute TV ad buy in Kansas ahead of a Tuesday special election, seeking to pump up Republican enthusiasm and turnout in a district that President Donald Trump carried by 27 percentage points just a few months ago.

The late independent expenditure seeks to boost Republican state Treasurer Ron Estes, who is running to replace CIA Director Mike Pompeo in Kansas’ 4th District. The district has not been on the radar of most national groups and activists, which have focused on the upcoming special election in Georgia as a more competitive opportunity. But Kansas Republicans are fretting that Estes’ margin is closer than expected in his race against Democrat James Thompson, an attorney.

“Kansas should not be in play, but Kansas is in play,” said one Kansas Republican consultant.

Republican ads in Kansas target Thompson’s pro-abortion stance.

Politico continues:

The ad plays to the GOP’s base ahead of the expected low-turnout special election, attacking Thompson’s positions on abortion.

“It’s just plain wrong. James Thompson supports late-term abortions, even using your tax dollars to pay for abortions,” the ad’s narrator says over ominous music and lighting. “It gets worse. James Thompson supports abortion even if the parents don’t like the gender of their baby.”

The ad says Thompson is “too extreme for Kansas” before cutting to praise Estes, who “defends the culture of life,” the narrator says, noting Estes’ endorsement from Kansans for Life. It urges voters to “stand up for life” on April 11.

An indication of Republican alarm over the closeness of this special election is that Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) will appear at an Estes rally in Kansas on Monday and Vice President Mike Pence is recording a robocall for Estes.

The Cook Political Report has moved this Kansas special election from “Solid Republican” to “Likely Republican.”

Georgia

On April 18, Georgia’s 6th Congressional district will vote to replace former representative and current Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price.  This should be a safer than safe seat, yet last minute GOP scrambling suggests that the progressive challenger to the GOP’s crowded field may have a chance of winning.

The national attention focused on this race, including celebrity donors and impressive campaign donations for the Democrat, has Republicans concerned about this seat.

Roll Call reports:

Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff raised $8.3 million during the first quarter of the year, his campaign announced Wednesday night.

It’s a stunning haul, especially for a 30-year-old first-time candidate who’s running as a Democrat in a traditionally Republican House district.

Ossoff’s candidacy for the special election to fill Georgia’s 6th District seat, the first competitive congressional election of Donald Trump’s presidency, has attracted national attention. That shows in his fundraising, which his opponents will surely use against him: 95 percent of his donations came from out of state, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which reviewed his first quarter filing. His report has not yet been filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The former Hill staffer and documentary filmmaker ended the quarter with $2.1 million. The average donation was $42.52, according to the campaign. The liberal website Daily Kos says its supporters have given Ossoff $1.25 million.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution notes that Ossoff is speaking about winning outright and thus avoiding a run-off.

Ossoff’s “Make Trump Furious” campaign has helped him emerge as the unquestioned leader in the 18-candidate field to represent a traditionally Republican stronghold. He’s captured celebrity endorsements, rattled Republican heavyweights and enlisted thousands of volunteers. He openly talks about winning the race outright in April to avoid a June 20 runoff.

“The campaign’s goal is not to get into a runoff, though we’ll be ready to fight a runoff if necessary,” Ossoff said at a recent campaign stop. “The campaign’s goal is to win this election outright on April 18.”

There are drawbacks to Ossoff’s candidacy, as noted in the Daily Beast article, “Could the Resistance Start With Georgia’s Special Election?”.

But while Ossoff’s shortcomings as a candidate are limited, they are also potentially serious.  For one thing, he does not live in the district.  Although he was raised there and his parents are still 6th district residents, Ossoff and his girlfriend live about 10 minutes south so that she can walk to work for early morning hospital shifts.  It’s not a legal requirement that he live there, but the National Republican Campaign Committee has already gone to the trouble of labeling him “a carpetbagger.”

Also, although progressives have embraced Ossoff as a potential savior, he is not the fire breather many liberals are craving.  He voted for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and calls the battle between moderates and progressives in the party “last year’s fight.”  Asked whether a vote for him should be considered a vote against Donald Trump, he said, “No.  It’s a vote for me and what I stand for.”

What Ossoff stands for is an economy-first pragmatism buttressed by unqualified support for liberal causes, including Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights.

The Cook Political Report has moved this Georgia special election to “Leans Republican,” adding “and that’s probably being generous to Republicans.”

Montana

On May 25, Montana will vote to fill its only House seat to replace former representative and current Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.  At first blush, it seems highly unlikely that the Republicans will lose this seat; however, there is a (somewhat remote) chance that the banjo-strumming folk singer running for Montana’s at-large seat could pick up enough votes to beat Republican Greg Gianforte, a software entrepreneur who lost 2016’s governor’s race to Democrat Steve Bullock.

The concern is that Gianforte’s recent loss will count against him and that Quist’s populism may strike a chord, pardon the pun, with Montana voters.

The Huffington Post reports:

Rob Quist, the legendary banjo-strumming folk singer with a populist streak and a penchant for public service, was running as a Democrat for Zinke’s seat.

Democrats chose their nominee at a state convention, where, as the first ballot turned to the second and then third, it gradually became apparent that Quist was deadly serious. He had barnstormed the state, urging locals to set up county parties, get active and come vote for him at the state convention.

HuffPo hopes that Quist will “deal a huge blow to Trump”; that, however, seems highly unlikely.

The Cook Political Report has this Montana special election listed as “Likely Republican.”

GOP Special Election Losses Would Feed Trump “Resistance”

FiveThrityEight cautions against drawing too many conclusions based on one special election win in Georgia, the most likely gain for Democrats.

[S]pecial House and Senate elections in the two years leading up to a midterm can go any which way. In any of the previous four cycles before a midterm, there’s at least one example of a candidate doing poorly in a special election — relative to the previous weighted presidential vote — only to have their party do well in the midterms.

So even if Ossoff wins — even if he wins comfortably — it won’t be safe to assume a Democratic wave is building in 2018.

. . . . The point is that Democrats and Republicans should be keeping an eye on the other four House special elections coming up over the next few months — not just Georgia 6. If Democratic candidates in those districts are outperforming the previous presidential vote compared with the nation by 9 to 10 percentage, too, it could be a sign that whatever happens in Georgia 6 is not a fluke.

A Democratic national House win by 9 to 10 percentage points would probably be large enough to take back the House in 2018. Of course, an Ossoff loss combined with Democratic underperformance in those other races would indicate that Democrats are in trouble.

The Democrats have an immense and intense enthusiasm about these special elections, about scoring wins for their Trump “resistance,” and unless Republican voters shake off the after-glow complacency that so often follows big gains and show up at the polls, Democrats may well make gains in the House that will invigorate them into 2018’s midterms.

Republicans typically have a stronger midterm turnout; however, this advantage shrinks when a Republican is in the White House.  Couple that with the intense Democrat motivation to “stop Trump,” and these special elections become more meaningful.

The New York Times reports:

On average, Republican turnout has been just 6 percent higher than Democratic turnout in midterm elections when Republicans have held the White House, like in 1982, 1986, 1990, 2002 and 2006. Republican turnout has been 17 percent higher than Democratic turnout in midterm elections when Democrats have held the presidency — like in 1994, 1998, 2010 and 2014. The same pattern shows up in the lower-quality data available elsewhere.

. . . . But the history of midterm turnout, the recent special elections, the protests, the donations and the early vote all seem consistent with the same story: The Democrats might be fixing their midterm turnout problem.

Three seats (or five counting California’s 34th District and South Carolina’s 5th District special elections taking place in June) may not seem like much, but the momentum that follows special election wins grows with each victory and could change everything in the 2018 midterms . . . just as our early victories fed our enthusiasm and determination and changed everything in 2010.