Virgil: What the Kansas Special Election Could Mean for Republicans in 2018

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The win of Republican Ron Estes in the Kansas special election spoiled the victory celebration that the Democrats and the Main Stream Media had been hoping for.  Yet the first rule of celebrations is that there’s always another celebration—and we don’t yet know who will be happy in 2018.

In recent days, in the run-up to the Jayhawk State’s voting, MSM headlines had been lipsmacking in their anticipation of a GOP defeat.  Here’s Reuters: “Dem’s surge in Kansas special election has GOP worried.” And Vox: “The GOP won this Kansas district by 31 points.  Democrats think they can turn it blue.” And the Los Angeles Times: “Republicans getting antsy over special congressional vote–in ruby-red Kansas, of all places.”

Well, it didn’t happen—Estes, the Republican, won.  Indeed, the election wasn’t actually that close; seven points is a perfectly respectable margin.  Yes, it’s true that just last November, the former holder of the House seat, Mike Pompeo, now Director of the CIA in the Trump administration, won by 31 points; but special elections are quirky, because turnout is low.  In 2016, some 275,000 Kansans voted in the fourth district’s election; on Tuesday, barely more than 100,000 cast ballots.

Of course, the MSM never gives up on its search for bad news about Republicans.   The Huffington Postfor instance, put the best face it could on the results: “A Kansas Special Election Just Shook Up Washington/ Republican Ron Estes won a race seen as an opportunity for Democrats to rebuke President Donald Trump.”  And The Washington Post injected mucho ominousness: “Republicans won, but the closeness of a Kansas special election could reverberate.”  Indeed, the Post sent one of its national reporters all the way to Wichita for the election, and yet since the GOPer won, the story ended up buried inside the hard-copy of the newspaper, as opposed to landing on page one.

Still, there are more special elections to come.  As Politico put it, Democrats hope to deliver “stinging defeats” to Trump in future contests, including in Georgia, Montana, and, according to reports, Pennsylvania.

Of these races, the battle for the sixth district of Georgia, in suburban Atlanta, is getting the most attention.  In that contest, the anointed Democrat, Jon Ossoff, revealed on April 6 that he had raised $8.3 million, which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described, correctly, as a “stunning figure.”  In the meantime, the 11 Republicans in the race seem to be dividing up a smaller pie.

Moreover, Ossoff’s dollar total, wherever it winds up, will not include expenditures from liberal independent groups.  And those independent groups are, indeed, energized.  As noted, Virgil doesn’t put much credence in the statistical gyrations of a lone election, but he does worry about larger general trends.  And this headline bespeaks a larger trend: “Left rising on Facebook.”  In the measured words of Axios’ Sara Fischer, “Facebook is a good tool for observing the rise of political movements.”  She continued:

New tools, like call-to-action buttons, fundraising buttons and buttons to contact elected officials, combined with traditional tools, like mass-event invitations, make it easy for political groups to form and spread on Facebook.

In other words, heavy activism on Facebook is heavy activism, period.

So while the Georgia 6 seat has been Republican for four decades—Newt Gingrich held it, then now-Senator Johnny Isakson, and then Tom Price, now Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services—the polling suggests that Ossoff has a real chance of snatching victory.  (The election is April 18, with a runoff, if needed, on June 20.)

So what’s going on?  It seemed that just yesterday, the Republicans had all the political energy.  Where’d it go?

Actually, it wasn’t yesterday, it was last year.  In November, the GOP scored a great success, and it wasn’t just Trump; his win, in fact, was toward the low end of presidential victories. It was, in fact, a sweep for the entire Republican Party.

But that was then, when swing voters joined committed activists in joint determination to be rid of Barack Obama and his Democrats.

Since then, however, the energy has shifted.  An early indicator came on January 20 and 21, when the number of anti-Trump protestors in Washington, DC, appeared to exceed the number of pro-Trump inaugural celebrants.

Indeed, here we might pause to make a somewhat glum point about the nature of political energy: It almost always goes against the party in the White House.  That is, when a party wins the presidency, its grassroots tend to become complacent; after all, their guy won the big one.  By contrast, the losing side tends to get angry, and so it starts organizing with a vengeance—or, one might say, with an eye towards vengeance.

We can recall that this was the story—that is, “outs” being more motivated than “ins”—of Republicans during the Obama era.  In those eight years, the GOP gained at least 1,030 seats across the country, including, of course, both chambers of Congress.

Yet in fact, the pattern is bipartisan; steep losses for the White House party have been common for more than a century.  For the sake of the curious, we can add that sometimes the party controlling 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has, in fact, been able to rejuvenate itself in midstream; one such occasion was the Democratic Party under the leadership of Harry Truman, back in 1948.

So today, Republicans can hope that Trump, too, proves to be a tonic for his party.

Yet at the same time, it pays to be mindful of the conventional wisdom.  It’s not always right, but it’s also not always wrong.  And a good dose of that wisdom comes from veteran political analyst Nathan Gonzales, writing about the upcoming midterm elections:

The Republican majority in the House was at risk before the results in Kansas.  The Republican majority is at risk after the results in Kansas. The president’s party has lost House seats in 18 of the last 20 midterm elections going back to 1938.  In those 18 elections, the president’s party has lost an average of 33 seats.  Democrats need to gain 24 seats in Nov. 2018 to regain the majority.  . . . When the [Kansas] 4th District  results are lined up with what’s happening in the special election in Georgia’s 6th District, and Trump’s slumping job rating, Republicans are whistling past the graveyard if they think there isn’t an at least temporary problem that extends beyond Kansas. President Trump is inspiring Democrats to action. [Emphasis added]

To be sure, the past is not necessarily prologue; if it was, a unique figure such as Trump would not now be the 45th president.  Moreover, every midterm is different; sometimes losses have been severe, sometimes mild—and yes, rarely, the presidential party has actually gained seats.

Okay, so what can Republicans do to improve their prospects in 2018?   Aside from all the usual injunctions about not being complacent, here’s a Virgilian thought: Find a better issue than healthcare.  That is, the GOP has more politically appealing issues—much more appealing.

Yes, Republicans have campaigned for years on the repeal of Obamacare, or, as it was usually expressed, “repeal and replace.”  And yes, most of the GOP’s activist  base, and much of its policy intelligentsia, has been deeply invested in that goal.

Yet at the same time, it’s painfully clear that all that effort didn’t translate into an agreed-upon legislative package that lived up to the promise of repeal and replace.

The failure of the American Health Care Act (AHCA)—pulled from what was destined to be a losing vote on March 24—happened for one basic reason: The bill was unpopular.  According to a Quinnipiac poll, just 17 percent of Americans supported the legislation, while 56 percent were opposed.

Not surprisingly, such upside-down numbers have immediate consequences.  Rep. Justin Amash, a leading Republican critic of AHCA, said afterward, if the bill had gone to the floor of the House, between 50 and 80 Republicans would have voted against it (plus, of course, every Democrat).

Since then, nothing seems to have changed.  According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released earlier this month, 64 percent of Americans are happy that AHCA died.

Moreover, the same poll found that 75 percent of Americans, including a majority of Trump supporters, now want the Trump administration to work to make Obamacare succeed.  That’s right: Make Obamacare succeed.  Virgil can add: This last finding is ominous, 2018-wise.  If the Kaiser polling is accurate, then the notion that Republicans could benefit by simply sitting back and watching Obamacare “explode” is risky in the extreme, because the resulting shrapnel would hurt elephants, not donkeys.

In fact, the politics of healthcare seem to be shifting rapidly, in a way that many on the right will find vexing.  As we all remember, in the last couple of midterms, Republicans won on an anti-Obamacare message.  And yet now, the mood seems to be more anti-anti-Obamacare.

One explanation for this change is that the Republican Party is changing.  As we  know, the rich are increasingly voting Democratic.  To be sure, today’s Democrats are a lot different from the Democrats of, say, Harry Truman’s era.  The hottest causes for today’s left seem to be gay, gender, and green.

As a result, the Republicans are now getting the support of those who find themselves priced out of snazzy fundraisers in Scarsdale or Santa Monica.  In fact, the states where Truman ran strong seven decades ago are now mostly Republican, while the anti-Truman states of yore are now mostly Democratic.

These political changes, of course, will inevitably translate into policy changes.  And among those changes is a significant shift in GOP attitudes on healthcare.

For instance, according to the Pew Research Center, moderate- and low-income Republicans have grown increasingly sympathetic to some sort of national health insurance.  Specifically, in 2016, Pew asked if it was the “responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage.”  And for 34 percent of Republicans making $30,000 to $75,000 a year, the answer was “yes.”  Furthermore, among Republicans making less than $30,000, 52 percent said “yes.”

To be sure, the majority of Republicans still reject such a government mission, even if, as the polling shows, their relative strength in the GOP is shrinking.

And here we might pause to note an often-overlooked fact about American healthcare: Since 1986, it’s been federal law that hospital emergency rooms must accept patients, regardless of ability to pay; that was a bill signed by President Ronald Reagan.  In other words, even before the passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in 2010, a rudimentary form of national health insurance was already in place.

To further illustrate where things seem to be headed, we can take another look at the state where we started: Kansas.

The Koch Brothers notwithstanding, Kansas is not a rich state; its median income is below the national average.  And earlier this month, the Republican-controlled Kansas House of Representatives voted nearly 2:1 to expand its Medicaid program, in order to benefit from the favorable financing offered under Obamacare.

That expansion effort failed, thanks to a veto by Governor Sam Brownback (R).   Yet it’s worth noting that the vote to override Brownback’s veto was 81:44, which means that half of the Republicans in the body voted in favor of expanding the health program.  And earlier, the Kansas State Senate, which is more than 3:1 Republican, had voted lopsidedly, too, for Medicaid expansion.  (As an aside, Brownback’s approval rating is in the mid-20s; according to one survey, among all the nation’s governors, Brownback is held in the lowest esteem.)

In response to this Topeka drama, some will say that Kansas Republicans include a bunch of RINOs.  Yes, that’s one way of looking at it.  Another way, of course, is that the GOP is changing.

That message should have come across loud and clear in the 2016 elections.  Yet evidently, for the sake of Republican fortunes in the 2018 midterms, it’s a message worth repeating.