How Trump Made Special Elections Great Again

Off-year contests are often snoozefests, but last year voters turned out in droves.

Marvin Gentry / Reuters

For the past couple of months, Congress has been caught up in an unsettling guessing game: Who will be the next lawmaker dethroned by allegations of sexual misconduct? A half-dozen members have either stepped down already or announced they won’t seek reelection. More are expected to follow in the new year.

Whatever the broader cultural import of this reckoning, it is already having a concrete political impact: special elections. Two are currently on the books for early 2018, to fill seats vacated by Representatives Trent Franks and Tim Murphy. (A third, to replace ex-Representative John Conyers, has been scheduled to coincide with the regular midterms.)

In normal times, such off-season races would prompt violent yawning even among the voters directly affected, much less the national electorate. But in the Age of Trump, even low-stakes special elections have the potential to morph into three-ring spectacles, as a fired-up Democratic “resistance” scrambles to regain its mojo.

While the circumstances prompting special elections are often colorful, the races themselves rarely capture the public imagination. Most folks can tell you why Anthony Weiner left the House in 2011; far fewer recall anything about those who vied to succeed him. Remember the thrilling 2015 race to replace Representative Michael Grimm, who spent several months in prison for tax fraud? Don’t worry: No one else does either. What about the 2013 special to fill the seat of Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., who served a somewhat longer prison term for financial improprieties involving campaign funds? Didn’t think so.

Every now and then, a race manages to cut through the off-season malaise. In the January 2010 election to fill the late Teddy Kennedy’s Senate seat, Republican Scott Brown’s shocking win didn’t shuffle the political deck so much as blow it up. Brown became Massachusetts’s first GOP senator since 1972, shattering the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority, endangering passage of President Obama’s signature health-care bill, and warning Democrats of the rough electoral seas ahead.

Likewise, a quirky candidate can energize an otherwise snooze-worthy race. Heading into the 2013 run to replace South Carolina Representative Tim Scott (who was ascending to the Senate), everyone assumed the deep-red seat would go to another Republican, so the give-a-damn factor was low. But things got juicy when Mark Sanford jumped into the GOP primary, a scant four years after having his governorship consumed by a scandal featuring an extramarital fling that turned him into a national punch line. (“Hiking the Appalachian Trail” will never be the same.) Whether South Carolinians would, or should, give Sanford a second chance became a topic of nationwide debate.

Absent a compelling x-factor, however, special elections have tended to be political nonevents, drawing far less attention, less money, and fewer voters than ordinary races. (A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found the turnout for House special elections to be around half that for the most recent general election in the same district. ) After all, who has time to get worked up over one lousy race that’s scheduled for a random date and is unlikely to result in a seat shifting from one party to the other? (According to Pew, just 16 percent of House special elections held since 1987 resulted in a seat changing hands.)

Then came Donald Trump. And faster than the political class could shriek “WTF,” even minor races assumed the potential to turn into white-hot proxies for the electorate’s feelings about this president.

“Everything is being used as a measure to test the Democratic Party’s comeback from their disastrous 2016, when GOP enthusiasm clearly outstripped that of Democrats,” observed Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It’s a long road back for the Democrats, and 2017 was barren of big races until November and December”—Virginia’s gubernatorial and state delegate elections and Alabama’s Senate special election, respectively. “So U.S. House and state legislative specials became the barometers for the political community.”

Just look at the high-octane battle for Georgia’s 6th congressional district this past spring. The suburban Atlanta seat has been red since 1979. But with Trump’s having won the district by only 1.5 percent last year, Democrats seized on the race as their first chance to claw back ground—and launch the narrative that the president was going to be a millstone around his party’s neck.

Even before Democrat Jon Ossoff came within a whisker of winning the nonpartisan primary outright, his campaign was raking in cash. For the runoff between Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel, the national parties kicked into high gear. Out-of-state money flooded in. Some $55 million was spent, making it the most expensive House race ever. Both the president and vice president headlined events for Handel. Trump bashed Ossoff on Twitter.  The national media hawked the battle as a test of suburban Trumpism. The sixth-district electorate took notice, with an unprecedented level of early voting and around half of registered voters turning out overall. In the end, Handel won, the seat stayed red, and the loss was portrayed as a crushing blow to Democrats’ morale.

Also vexing to the blue team was the May special election for Montana’s at-large House seat—a seat that has been red for two decades. Even so, the race drew more notice than usual, in part because Republican Greg Gianforte was seen as a particularly Trumpian nominee: a self-proclaimed “drain the swamp” outsider with a business background and in-your-face manner. (More tantalizing still, Gianforte held minor investments in Russian companies.)

Vice President Pence and Donald Trump Jr. hit the trail for Gianforte, and the president recorded a robocall for him. Then, on the eve of the election, Gianforte physically attacked a reporter from The Guardian newspaper, and wound up charged with assault. The political world went berserk, chattering about whether Montanans would back the Republican despite—or maybe even because of—his thuggish behavior. (It’s hard to get more Trumpian than picking literal fights with the media.) They did, dashing Democrats’ hopes once more.

By the time Alabama’s Senate election rolled around, the entire nation seemed to be spoiling for a brawl. Alabama did not disappoint. Most likely, the race would have generated buzz in any climate, thanks to Republican Roy Moore’s unique profile: the scripture-quoting, culture-warring judge twice booted from office for disregarding the law was being accused by multiple women of teen sexual predation. (That level of Southern Gothic weirdness would have impressed Faulkner.) Former federal prosecutor Doug Jones, meanwhile, made the ideal foil as a sober, boring, moderate sort of Democrat.

That said, the Trump factor kicked things up a notch. Both political teams began freaking out over what Democrats possibly capturing one of the nation’s reddest Senate seats signaled about the overall political climate. The punditocracy, meanwhile, speculated endlessly about how such a loss would impact a Republican congressional majority already fretting over how Trump will affect its midterm prospects, not to mention the party’s long-term brand.

On a still more basic level, a Senate nominee accused of sexual predation being championed by a sitting president himself facing multiple allegations of sexual predation made for an irresistible soap opera. Money and campaign volunteers poured into Alabama from all over. The national media flooded the zone, becoming both a key player and a key target for Moore, who claimed journalists were paying women to falsely accuse him. By voting day, Moore’s fate was being pitched as an indicator of not only the political but also the moral health of the entire GOP. Election night was covered with the sort breathlessness once reserved for presidential contests. And when it was all over, Jones’s victory spurred celebration not only among Democrats but among anti-Trump Republicans anxious about the direction of the party.

So what’s next? On March 13, voters in Pennsylvania’s 18th district will pick Tim Murphy’s successor. The parties have already chosen their nominees: Republican Rick Saccone, an Air Force veteran and pro-Trump state legislator, is facing Democrat Conor Lamb, a Marine vet and former federal prosecutor.

Covering the southwest corner of the state, the 18th is considered reliably red. (This stretch of coal country went for Trump by 20 points in 2016.) Then again, under Trump, Republicans have been underperforming even in the special elections they’ve won, and Democrats are feeling feisty after big wins in Alabama and Virginia. Anything is possible, as both teams fight for momentum heading into the midterms.

Give Trump credit: On his watch, even typically dull special elections have become truly special.