Democrats still aren’t winning.
Four months into his administration, President Donald Trump registers the approval of barely 40 percent of the country. He is mired in an investigation that appears to expand by the day, and is continually damaged by government leakers seemingly determined to embarrass him.
Conservatives openly fret about the future of their ideological movement, given the president’s rampant inconsistencies. Even with majorities on Capitol Hill, Republicans are struggling with delivering the legislative agenda they campaigned on, often burdened by papering over the latest Trump tweet or distracted by the daily Russia-related developments.
This week, they found themselves attempting to shrug off the astonishing meltdown of their Montana congressional candidate, who snapped at a reporter on the eve of Thursday’s special election, allegedly slamming him to the ground and punching him.
The media narrative for the Republican Party in 2017 has teetered between dark and darker. A White House on the brink. A GOP Congress at war with itself. A slate of underperforming or uninspiring contenders.
And yet, the Democrats still aren’t winning.
In the three opportunities they’ve had to deliver a brushback to Trump through special U.S. House elections, they’ve failed. These districts are undoubtedly conservative-leaning, having not been held by a Democrat for decades, and in one case, Democrats still have a shot to flip a seat in Georgia next month.
But for all the raised expectations on the left and the hand-wringing on the right, the results have been the same, underscoring just how difficult it will be for the minority party to claw its way back into power. Trump is weakened, but far from vanquished. Republican candidates may be flawed, but their loyal constituencies are showing up to bail them out – if only to rebut the narrative they’re constantly hearing permeate out of Washington.
Even before Republican Greg Gianforte faced a misdemeanor assault charge, he was seen as a subpar candidate due to unpopularity tied to his failed run for governor last year. He was yet another white male multimillionaire running for high office.
Clad in a cowboy hat, folk-singing and guitar-strumming Democrat Rob Quist was easily the more colorful candidate. He attracted significant funding, drew large crowds – with the help of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont – and tracked within single digits of Gianforte in polling.
After the incident involving Gianforte and Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, there was a brief moment when the chattering class wondered if it would amount to a breaking point. But as reporters on the ground scoured for signs of the favored candidate facing a crisis, the evidence they turned up was scant.
A store clerk in the state told MSNBC that Gianforte sounded like “my kind of politician.” A 75-year-old Bozeman architect who had already voted for Gianforte told The New York Times the incident “doesn’t change my mind at all.” CNN found a voter who, after hearing the audio of the scuffle, actually said he had compassion for Gianforte.
As Gianforte apologized for his actions during his victory speech, admitting, “I made a mistake,” a supporter could be heard saying, “Not in our minds!”
Gianforte defeated Quist by 6 points in the statewide district – far from the 20-point margin Trump racked up or even the 16-point margin former Rep. Ryan Zinke collected in 2016.
But as cliche as it sounds, a win is still a win. And the overarching takeaway is that in this hyperpartisan environment – in which sides are unwilling to grant even the smallest concession to their opponents – it takes a mountain to move voters, especially those in red districts.
Even a body-slam won’t do it.
“Close only counts in horseshoes,” Democratic strategist David Axelrod tweeted Friday. “Outside @GOP groups outspent Ds 6-to-1, unleashing a ceaseless barrage on Quist with no counter. Will this be the norm?”
“Another question is whether in cycle [Democratic candidates] should expect the same infusion of cash online as those running in specials,” Axelrod said. “Probably not.”
The Democrats have nothing but margins to take solace in. Noting that Gianforte performed 14 points worse than Trump, one operative attempted to highlight the bright side by imagining that “if every GOPer in ’18 does 14 pts worse than Trump, Dems win 138 House seats.”
Of 30 House GOP seats desired by Democrats, 23 of the incumbents won by more than 6 points in 2016, and 17 of them won by more than 10 .
The seesaw of politics says Democrats should have the wind at their backs during next year’s midterms, especially if Trump doesn’t improve his own standing. Over the last 20 such elections, the president’s party has lost House seats in 18. Yet even with a wave, those are towering margins to climb and topple to reclaim control.
Of course, it’s foolish to read too much into just a few special elections, let alone a single one.
But observers can be assured that if Democrats had emerged victorious in any thus far, it would’ve sparked a fusillade of headlines and coverage portraying a coming doomsday for the GOP.
What’s true is that these early elections are showing the limits of the Democratic resistance that has bubbled up across the country and into the streets. It’s proved powerful, but not transformative.
And while Montana was probably never a ripe place to fire up an anti-Trump protest vote, in less than a month, yet another weather vane will appear in Georgia’s special election run-off for a House seat.
Jon Ossoff and the Georgia race appear to offer the best chance yet for a Democratic victory. Gubernatorial races this fall in Virginia and New Jersey offer additional shots.
But so far, Democrats aren’t winning.