Voters in Georgia’s 6th congressional district have just delivered a timely reminder that Americans are a long way away from deserting Donald Trump’s Republican Party. For all the noise about the Russia investigations, Trump’s unpopularity, and his unimpressive legislative record thus far, American voters’ preferences have not changed a great deal since Trump’s inauguration.
That matters for Australia: President Trump will be emboldened by the Georgia results, which augurs well for a Republican Party that seems more likely than not to retain both houses of Congress until the next presidential election in 2020.
Five months into the Trump administration, a surge of progressive outrage has hardly translated into electoral momentum for the Democrats.
Today’s result in Georgia was a demoralising blow for the Democratic Party. Jon Ossoff, the young, good-looking Democratic candidate, raised almost $US25 million for today’s race. He was the Democrats’ great hope, but Ossoff tallied less than 48 per cent of the vote.
Republican candidate Karen Handel won the suburban Atlanta seat vacated by Tom Price, the Health and Human Services Secretary. The seat is reliably Republican – it was previously held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – but this is exactly the type of highly-educated suburban district that Democrats need to win if they are to retake the House of Representatives in 2018.
The Democrats’ record in special elections this year is unimpressive. Although they have enjoyed a swing towards them in the handful of races held so far, Democrats have failed to win other House races in Republican states South Carolina, Kansas and Montana, where Republican candidate Greg Gianforte was sentenced to community service for assaulting a journalist in the days before the poll. But the Georgia loss will hurt Democrats the most, because it was widely seen as their best chance of notching a victory this year.
Democrats face an uphill battle heading into next year’s midterms. The ‘math’, as Americans say, favours the Republican Party. Democrats hold 25 of the 33 Senate seats that are up in 2018; they will be defending many seats in states that Donald Trump won in 2016. They have few pickup opportunities to take seats from Republicans, most of whom represent states that Trump won easily last year. Republicans will probably increase their 52-48 majority in the upper chamber.
Democrats remain hopeful that they can flip the House next year, but today’s result gives little reason for optimism. Ossoff’s 48 per cent of the vote was only a marginal improvement on Hillary Clinton’s 46 per cent showing in the district last November. The Democrats’ task will remain particularly difficult so long as President Trump maintains a very high approval rating among Republican voters – which this week stands at 84 per cent – despite Trump’s national unpopularity.
If Democrats do retake the House, they would have a formal foothold on power and the ability to obstruct Trump’s agenda. This counts not just for domestic issues; Australia has a key stake in Congressional votes that determine the budget for the State Department and the Pentagon, as well as the Congressional power over any trade legislation or trade agreements.
For now, the Republican Senate will push on with its healthcare bill, reassured that there are few signs of an aggressive voter backlash to Trump and the Republican agenda.