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Infiltration: The Losing Democratic Strategy of 2017

If you haven’t read the news recently, we just held an election in this country.

No, not that election.

While Donald Trump was elected president only seven months ago, that is not the election I’m referring to. On June 15th, 2017, TN House District 95 held a special election to replace Representative Mark Lovell. During the primary season, the Republicans fielded nine well-qualified candidates; the democrats only ran one. Once Mr. Kevin Vaughan had secured the nomination from the Republican party, the race was down to him and one Democratic candidate: Julie Ashworth.

Mrs. Ashworth was by no means a Memphis outsider, but the support she received from outside the city was plentiful. The District 95 election, along with many others, was being used as a testing ground for Democratic strategy in the Trump-era political climate. Supporters from other blue counties in the state, such as Davidson and Haywood- counties who both voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, were sent to District 95 to campaign. Meanwhile, Vaughan was hosting community events with local leaders and supporters. His fellow Republican candidates supported him in the general election, and he gained additional support by way of state level officials from Shelby County.

Kevin Vaughan won the general election last Thursday by over 60%. This isn’t an anomaly either: elections in Montana and Kansas both swung Republican despite major Democratic leveraging in each race. This week, viewers will be privy to several more special elections, most notably in South Carolina and Georgia.

In these races, outside influencers are using a strategy that we might call infiltration. External media sources draw attention to the special elections occurring in ‘Trump’s America’ and ask whether the Republicans will be able to hold their seat. Alongside this media coverage, Democrats from outside these districts, and even outside the states these elections are held in, are working tirelessly to drum up support for their candidate. In some cases, tens of thousands of dollars are sent to these candidates. So far, however, these infiltrators have failed to secure a single seat for the Democratic party.

Perhaps the most notable example of this infiltration strategy has been in the Georgia 6th District race to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. In Georgia’s 6th District, Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff is competing in a runoff election against Republican candidate Karen Handel. Neither candidate garnered majority support in the election, with Karen Handel having her expected votes split among several other Republican candidates. Like Tennessee’s District 95 race, Democrats in Georgia’s 6th only ran Ossoff, yet failed to clear the 50% threshold. With tensions running high since the general election, Democrats decided to make Georgia’s 6th District a national focal point: money, volunteers, and materials are flooding in from across the country.

Despite considerable external influence, however, the Democrats have yet to pull off a special election victory. Why is this? While many factors are at play, we can learn much by studying the 2016 presidential election map: the Democratic party still fails to appeal to small town or even suburban voters. Instead of pulling support from the grassroots within the community, Democrats are trying (and failing) to flip seats that have already secured the admiration and appreciation of their local constituents from Republican representatives.

Georgia’s 6th District will be the ultimate test. Not only will the race be the most expensive federal House of Representatives race in the history of this country, it will also be a major test of the Trump administration. If Democrats secure Georgia’s 6th District, then perhaps they can continue to try their infiltration strategy during the 2018 midterm cycle. If, however, Mrs. Handel can win her special election, then the common trope of the Democratic Party that Trump is losing 2016 voter support seems less and less realistic. So, can the Republican party truly hold together in the Age of Trump? If the current data holds true, it will be no surprise to see Republican Karen Handel as Georgia’s next 6th district representative.

William "Alex" Schramkowski is a second year student at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is currently working for Senator Lamar Alexander in Alexander's Memphis office.

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