Reading the Kansas 4 and Georgia 6 Tea Leaves

By Michael Barone

April 21, 2017 6 min read

What to make of the results of the first two of this spring's special House elections? Start off by putting them in perspective. They pose a challenge to both political parties, but especially to Republicans, who have been used to an unusually stable partisan alignment, an alignment that has become scrambled by Donald Trump.

Those of us who can remember the 1964-84 years have seen much greater partisan churning. Almost half of the congressional districts that voted for Richard Nixon in 1972 elected Democratic congressmen. Some 191 districts split tickets. In 2012, that number was down to 26, the lowest since 1920.

The number rose in 2016, to 35, with another dozen or so on the cusp. That reflects Trump's distinctive appeal. Exit polling reported he increased the Republican margin among non-college-educated whites, from 25 points to 39, though he reduced it among white college graduates, from 16 points to 4.

Which leads us to the special elections. The first, on April 11, was in Kansas' 4th Congressional District to fill the seat left by Mike Pompeo, whom Trump tapped to be director of the CIA. The district is composed heavily of non-college-educated whites — with two-thirds of its voters in Sedgwick County, where Wichita is, and the remainder in rural counties. Republican Ron Estes won by a 53-46 percent margin — well below Trump's 59-32 percent margin in the district in the 2016 presidential election.

Democrat James Thompson carried Sedgwick County, apparently because of switches by college-educated voters. But Estes carried a solid 62 percent in the rural counties, well ahead of the 2014 percentages there for two other Republicans, Gov. Sam Brownback and Sen. Pat Roberts.

Given the dynamics of special elections (you can cast a protest vote — and for a locally attuned candidate — without turning the whole government over to the opposition), this looks something like a traditional, pre-Trump margin in what has been a safe Republican seat for 20 years.

The turnout was heavier and the race more contested Tuesday in Georgia's 6th Congressional District to fill the seat of Tom Price, who is now the secretary of health and human services. The district, in the northern Atlanta suburbs, has one of the highest percentages of college graduates in the nation. Mitt Romney carried it by 23 points in 2012. Trump won it by 1.5 percent last year. Despite its Republican leanings, it has heavily Democratic black, Hispanic and Jewish blocs.

National Democrats rallied to 30-year-old filmmaker and former House staffer Jon Ossoff, who raised a phenomenal $8.3 million. When the first returns came in, Ossoff had 71 percent of the vote, while Republicans were split among 11 candidates. But as all the returns poured in, that was reduced to 48 percent. Ossoff faces a June 20 runoff against Republican Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state and Fulton County commissioner.

In the end, 51 percent of voters chose Republicans, and 49 percent voted for Democrats. Ossoff got 1.3 points more than Hillary Clinton did in last year's presidential election. The 11 Republicans got 1.4 points more than Trump. Obviously, either candidate could win in June.

There's a clear contrast with Kansas 4, whose results suggest that traditional Republican margins in other less educated, nonmetropolitan areas are greatly threatened. Georgia 6 suggests that in places heavy with college graduates, the 2016 Trump numbers are the new norm — at least in races without incumbents who have established themselves as being in sync with the district.

A glance at the list of the 23 Republican districts carried by Clinton shows that a half-dozen are heavily Hispanic with well-known incumbents. But most are heavily affluent and college-educated. Five such districts in Southern California and one in northern Virginia have increasing immigrant populations; three in Texas, like Georgia 6, have affluent traditionally Republican voters repelled enough by Trump to vote for Clinton.

There would be many more such heavily college-educated districts vulnerable to Democratic takeover but for the fact that Democrats have long since taken them over, starting in the 1990s.

The good news for pro-Trump Republicans is that most of his November 2016 voters have stuck with him. His current 42 percent job approval rating is only 4 points below the percentage of the national vote he won five months ago.

The bad news for pro-Trump Republicans is that there is zero evidence that he is making inroads among the slightly larger percentage of those who voted against him. Georgia 6 suggests that the highly educated among them are heavily motivated to get out and vote Democratic. Republican incumbents who considered their districts safe may not have worked them hard enough to survive a spirited challenge.

Trump threaded the needle by winning over enough non-college-educated voters to win 100 electoral votes that Barack Obama had won in 2012. Republicans may need to thread a different needle to hold the House.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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