Four recent special elections in Republican-held House districts, including Tuesday’s showdown in the northern Atlanta suburbs, have left both parties facing the same ambiguous equation they confronted as 2017 began.
Significantly improved Democratic performance in all four contests has provided evidence that enough voters are uneasy about Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency to give Democrats a competitive chance of recapturing the House of Representatives next year. But the GOP wins despite those Democratic gains have shown that enough ordinarily Republican-leaning voters are sticking with their party to give it a plausible chance of holding its majority.
This dynamic points to the sensible conclusion that control of the House in November 2018 will turn on events that have not happened yet—which is why special elections historically have had such limited value in predicting the next general election.
The Republican sweep of these contests—in Kansas, Montana, Georgia, and South Carolina, where Trump tapped House members to join his Cabinet—does have some tangible consequences. It has left Democrats frustrated and divided once again between centrists and Bernie Sanders-style progressives. (The latter group accused the party’s Georgia nominee, Jon Ossoff, of running a bland and insufficiently populist campaign.) For Republicans, the wins—especially Karen Handel’s victory over Ossoff this week—will help calm the nerves of incumbents, donors, and activists frazzled by Trump’s volatile first months.