Democrats Struggling to Recruit Strong Candidates
Decimated bench leaves party with lackluster contenders in hunt for special-election upsets
Democrats had the drive, anger and money to send a message of resistance to President Donald Trump and score upsets in a slew of Republican-leaning districts in special elections this year.
But increasingly, it is becoming apparent they could not recruit strong candidates.
“They have President Obama to blame for that. They have such a thin bench that they’re left with second- and third-rate candidates that just don’t cut it.”
Trump picked four Republican representatives for spots in his administration, setting up special elections in their old districts. The special election later this year to replace Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in South Carolina is not considered competitive.
But Democrats had high hopes for the other three. They already have lost one, in Kansas, with a candidate who feuded with the party and staked out positions far to the left of the 4th Congressional District. In Georgia, they are running a 30-year-old neophyte who does not even live in his district. And their standard-bearer in Montana is a quirky folk singer with a history of doubts about his veracity.
None has run for office before. The candidate with the most political experience is young Jon Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker who spent some time as a low-level aide to Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). He will face seasoned Republican and former statewide office holder Karen Handel in a runoff election in June.
Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, said Democrats have fewer potential candidates after losing 1,000 state legislative seats during Barack Obama’s presidency.
“They have President Obama to blame for that,” he said. “They have such a thin bench that they’re left with second- and third-rate candidates that just don’t cut it.”
Representatives from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not return a call from LifeZette seeking comment, but the organization is spending heavily in Montana seeking to avoid repeating a mistake in Kansas in a race that turned out to be closer than expected.
The first special election for a Republican-held seat took place on April 11 in Kansas to replace CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Civil rights lawyer James Thompson ran as a Bernie Sanders Democrat and picked an endorsement from the Vermont senator’s political organization. He complained when the national Democratic Party declined his request for $20,000 to help with a mailing late in the campaign.
Many observers thought the Republican candidate, Ron Estes, was lackluster. And he was weighed down by an extremely unpopular Republican governor. Democrats took solace in the fact that the margin — about 6.5 percentage points — was much closer than in past elections.
It was still a loss.
Close But No Cigar in Georgia
Next up was a special election to replace Tom Price, the health and human services secretary. Democrat Jon Ossoff rode a wave of progressive support and Hollywood star power against a crowded field of Republicans in a free-for-all first round on April 18. He came up just short of winning the suburban Atlanta district, taking 48.1 percent of the vote.
Republicans have mocked Ossoff for living outside the district, getting most of his campaign contributions from out of state, and embellishing his résumé by over-hyping his national security credentials. He has struggled to position himself as a moderate, ducking a question in a recent CNN interview about whether he would vote for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as speaker of the House.
Ossoff supporters touted a survey last week by a Democratic polling firm that gave him a 1-point lead with 48 percent of the vote.
"That means that he hasn't moved in the two weeks since the 18th," said a Republican source, who asked not be identified.
A poll later in the week from WSB-TV/Landmark Communications showed Handel leading Ossoff 49.1 to 46.5 percent.
Finally, there is the race in Montana to succeed Ryan Zinke, who resigned to become secretary of the interior. The Republican candidate is tech millionaire Greg Gianforte. His Democratic opponent, Rob Quist, is a folk singer who campaigns in a cowboy hat and guitar.
The National Republican Campaign Committee has dumped $1.5 million into the race, and Pandol said the party feels good about Gianforte.
"He's running against Rob Quist, who is way too far left for Montana on gun rights, on socialized medicine," he said. "There are a number of issues that show he's just Nancy Pelosi in a cowboy hat."
Quist is facing headwinds from more than just his position on the issues. According to the Associated Press, he underreported his income by $57,000 on a financial disclosure form. The Billings Gazette reported he has a 16-year trail of financial problems that include unpaid loans and property taxes.
The Gazette also reported that Quist claimed that he was too sick to work, which prevented him from being able to pay his mortgage in 2011, despite the fact that he performed at least 35 concerts that year — including, according to The Washington Free Beacon, at a nudist colony.
The NBC station in Helena, Montana, reported that Quist even lied about his hunting record, claiming to be a lifelong hunter and fisherman despite having no state fishing or hunting license since at least 2002, the start of automated records.
"As an opposition research firm … it's kind of been a dream for us," said Jeremy Adler, a spokesman for America Rising Squared. "They don't seem to muster consideration for Congress."
An Emerson College poll last month gave Gianforte a 15-point lead.
Dem Near-Misses Becoming Pattern
Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said Democrats suffered a noticeable letdown after their near miss in Georgia. He said he wonders if they can regroup in time for the runoff in June.
It follows a recent pattern, Ostermeier said. He said Democrats salivated over a pickup opportunity in New York State when Republican Rep. Michael Grimm resigned in disgrace but did not come close to winning the special election in May 2015.
Democrats came close but failed to win a special election to replace former Rep. Bill Young in Florida in July 2014. National Democrats also had high hopes that the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert could snatch a Republican-leaning district away from scandal-plagued former Gov. Mark Sanford in South Carolina in May 2014 after Tim Scott won appointment to the U.S. Senate. But Sanford won.
And then there is Wisconsin, where union anger led to a recall election against Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2012. But Walker prevailed.
"How many of them can they endure and still maintain the enthusiasm?" said Ostermeier, editor of a political website called Smart Politics.
Ostermeier said it is risky to predict an election cycle based on a handful of special elections the previous year. In elections where a party has picked up 10 or more House seats, it is seven times more likely to flip seats in preceding special elections. But that rule does not always hold, he said. For instance, Republicans lost two seats in special elections leading up to the 2004 midterm elections but wound up gaining seats that year.
Ostermeier said there have been 17,000 congressional races in regular years since the start of World War II and only 378 special elections. Of those 378, he said, 20 percent have flipped parties. Turnout could prove important. The last 10 special elections that have resulted in a change in partisan control have averaged turnout of 81 percent of the turnout in the regular election — much higher than the turnout in a typical special election.
Looking ahead to 2018, Ostermeier said, the quality of candidates likely will matter. That means finding not only candidates with experience but ones whose ideology is compatible with their districts. He said the energy in the Democratic Party is coming from the far Left, which might pull its congressional nominees to the Left.
"It's hard to see how and where a candidate like that can win a statewide race in a purple state or a competitive district, depending on who the opponent was," he said.
Adler, of America Rising Squared, said Democrats are in danger of making the same mistake they made in 2016 when well-known and well-worn candidates like former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, and former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh all went down to a defeat in an election that started with high hopes among liberals that Republicans would lose their Senate majority.
"I'd look to the 2016 Senate races," Adler said. "Look at the candidates they recruited. They recruited retreads. They recruited Ted Strickland, who'd been around forever. They recruited Russ Feingold, who already had been fired once by the voters."