Special elections send stark warnings to both parties

The Observer editorial board

Georgia Republican Karen Handel celebrates her U.S. House win Tuesday.
Georgia Republican Karen Handel celebrates her U.S. House win Tuesday. AP

Last November, as the GOP swept into power in Washington, two of the election’s less noteworthy results came from U.S. House races SC-05 and GA-06, where incumbent Republicans won by more than 20 points in reliably conservative districts.

Those seats were up for grabs again Tuesday in special House elections, and Republicans again won. But this time, the margin of victory in each race was quite noteworthy – less than four points in each.

That’s certainly not a wave for Democrats. It’s not, of course, even a win. But it is a message for both Democrats and Republicans.

For Democrats, it’s a reminder of the difficulties they’ll face as they try to gain House and Senate majorities in Washington. Voters may be wary of President Donald Trump, but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi remains an albatross for Democrats, one that Republican winner Karen Handel effectively exploited in the Georgia race. Democrats also continue to have trouble fielding candidates who connect with voters, and they need to better explain how they’re good for their districts, not just how Trump is bad for everyone.

For Republicans, the message Tuesday is the same as two earlier special elections this year: You’re winning, but losing. Republican voters have peeled away in alarming numbers in all four races, perhaps because they see a Congress pushing an unpopular health care bill and showing a consistent unwillingness to stand up to a dangerous president.

South Carolina’s 5th District should be especially troubling to the GOP. The district, which was redrawn in 2010, has been comfortably conservative through several elections, but not Tuesday. One example: Kershaw County, northeast of Columbia, is 70 percent white and largely rural. It delivered Donald Trump a 15-point win in November, but gave Republican Ralph Norman just a six-point margin this week. That’s a noteworthy erosion of the Republican base, and it’s a dynamic that’s been reflected in polls across the country.

It’s also not unusual. Midterm elections are historically sobering for the party in power, as voters realize the hopes they took to the ballot box are not being fulfilled.

That might become especially clear this week, as Republican senators unveil a health care plan that’s likely to cut critical Obamacare benefits and coverage for millions of people in red states and districts. Why would Republicans take a chance on alienating the voters who sent them to office? They believe their base will back them no matter what – and they’re pointing to SC-05 and GA-06 as examples.

But as Tuesday showed, that base is shaky. The GOP should remember this, too: Democrats won the first seven special elections after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, but the midterm elections in 2010 were disastrous for the party.

Now a new round of midterms looms, with lots of Republican incumbents who didn’t win by 20-plus points – or even 10 points. Voters may have given the GOP two wins on Tuesday, but they also delivered a message. Is Washington listening?