WASHINGTON – When Democrat Jill Long won an upset special election victory for Dan Quayle’s old House seat in the heavily Republican Fort Wayne area congressional district back in 1989, Lee Atwater, who was the newly installed chairman of the Republican National Committee, told the New York Times he was ashamed his party lost.  “She ran the kind of campaign I would have been proud of,” Atwater, the king of hardball politics, lamented.
Atwater, who was fresh from masterminding George H.W. Bush’s presidential victory in 1988, could afford to shoulder the blame.  Much has changed in the world of congressional campaigns in the almost 30 years since that Indiana race. But there is still a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing after an election loss in a high profile race, as in the June 20 Georgia 6 special election.
Party leaders should be apologetic when they lose a special election in a district drawn for their own candidates. Partisan make-up of a congressional district weighs heavily on the outcome. Republicans usually win special elections in Republican districts and Democrats usually win in Democratic districts. Upsets tend only to happen when there are special circumstances present, such as a scandal-ridden retiring incumbent or a favored candidate who takes the outcome for granted. Of course, special elections in swing districts will be genuinely competitive, but there are fewer of them because a president will try to avoid recruiting members for administration jobs from such districts due to the possibility of losing a seat.

In Barack Obama’s first year as president, Democrats ran the table on special elections, just as Republicans have this year. The difference is Democrats won two of the five races then in more difficult terrain than any of the races Republicans have won this year.
In April 2009, for example, Democrat Scott Murphy narrowly won a special election in New York’s 20th Congressional District to replace Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to the U.S. Senate to succeed the new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Traditionally conservative, the district had been in Republican hands in all but four years in beginning 1913 before Gillibrand, a Democrat, won the seat in 2006. Murphy, who ended up losing in 2010, won the special in large part due to the popularity of both Gillibrand and the new president, Barack Obama.
Similarly, in New York 23 Democrat Bill Owens, aided by a Tea Party challenge to the Republican establishment candidate, narrowly won a special election in November 2009 after President Obama appointed Republican U.S. Rep. John McHugh as secretary of the Army. The 23rd District has historically been one of the most Republican districts in the country.  
There are no moral victories in politics because winning is the bottom line. That said, it is without question that Democrats have outperformed their 2016 numbers in all four of the special elections this year.   
In Georgia 6, for example, where Democrats believed they had the best chance of competing of the four districts, the Republican performance is rated as plus 8% by the highly respected Cook Partisan Index. Further, although Donald Trump carried the district by less than 2%, HHS Secretary Tom Price, who vacated the seat to take the cabinet post, won the conservative district easily in 2016 and 2014 (with 62% and 66% of the vote respectively).  Democrats forced Republicans to spend heavily with big dollars to hold districts that they should have easily won, while Democratic candidates raised most of their millions from small donations.
Nevertheless, this year’s special elections have exposed weaknesses that could undercut efforts to take or protect the House majority in the 2018-midterm elections.  
The Republicans may have to overcome historically low presidential approval numbers. Historically, a president’s favorability ratings are the best indicator of whether the incumbent party sustains big midterm election losses. Trump was clearly a drag on each of the Republican candidates in all four of this year’s special elections. But in those districts, it was not enough to overcome the Republican partisan advantage. Democrats would likely have won any swing district specials had there been any.
Republican candidates may also have to defend an extremely unpopular health care law.  It is not yet apparent whether the Senate health care bill will pass or that the House and Senate can reach agreement, if it does. But it is obvious that attempts by Republican leaders to push a bill that imposes deep cuts in Medicaid are raising alarms in both red and blue states. GOP Senate leaders face growing opposition even within their own caucus from both conservatives and moderates.
Even after losing four special elections, Democrats would still seem to have the wind at their back. That is not to say that winning control of the House of Representatives will be easy as some Democrats seem to have thought. Democrats held onto the hope that Donald Trump’s low favorability ratings would carry the day with one or more of these special elections.  
There are 23 Republican held seats that Hillary Clinton carried. Democrats need 24 seats to win majority and they won’t win all 23 of the districts Clinton won, since some of those Republican incumbents are personally too popular. However, there are likely enough swing districts in states like California, Florida, Pennsylvania and others, that can get them to 24 when added to whatever number of blue districts they win.

Sautter is a Democratic media consultant based in Washington.