Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Dog That Didn't Bark--Or Did It?

In a special election in Kansas's Fourth Congressional District, Republican Ron Estes won by about 8 points the seat formerly held by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.  This is a solidly Republican seat, so a GOP victory would be expected.  Pompeo won it by about 30 points in 2016, and Donald Trump crushed Hillary Clinton in that district.  Is this relatively narrow 8-point victory margin a warning siren for the GOP nationally?  Maybe--but only maybe.

Overinterpreting special-election results is a bit of a DC parlor game, and we should be wary about reading too much into them.  Estes still won handily, and his Democratic opponent, James Thompson was a Republican until 2016.  Congressional elections are in part shaped by candidate quality and local circumstances, and Kansas's Republican governor Sam Brownback struggles with a low approval rating.  Moreover, a special election tends to be dominated by more motivated voters, and, with Democrats locked out of power in Congress, they certainly are more motivated.  So a slightly narrower GOP victory margin might be expected.

That said, certain national factors do suggest that the GOP could be facing some electoral headwinds going into the 2018 midterms.  The party of the incumbent president usually loses seats during midterm elections.  The approval rating of the congressional GOP could be higher, as could President Trump's rating.

None of those broader forces mean that Republicans will necessarily lose Congress next year.  But they do suggest the risks of policy deadlock on Capitol Hill.  Republicans would be wise to think of areas where they can pass popular reforms that live up to the campaign promises of the president and the Republican party overall.

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