The closely watched special elections this spring and summer in Georgia, Kansas, Montana and South Carolina have something important in common: Trump created the vacancies by naming House members to his Cabinet. As we’ll discuss below, this has been fairly common among recent presidents. But in selecting the Cabinet team that he wanted, Trump might have put his party’s majority at risk in Congress.
But Democrats are heartened by the narrower-than-expected margins in these contests, and by the fact that their candidate for the Georgia seat had a strong first-round performance. They’re hoping to translate these showings into a win in the upcoming June 20 election in Georgia, and to exceed expectations in South Carolina that same day.
Could these races signal trouble ahead for Republicans in next year’s midterm elections?
How often do presidents raid Congress for their Cabinets?
Since 1977, Presidents Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama have collectively chosen 21 sitting members of Congress for a Cabinet or Cabinet-rank post who left 12 open seats in the House and nine in the Senate. Trump has picked five — the four from the House, and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general. That is more than the past six presidents’ first-term average of three Cabinet members who vacated seats in Congress.
When compared with fellow Republican presidents, Trump stands out even more. The past three Republican presidents selected on average just one such sitting member of Congress in their first term, two fewer than Trump. The past three Democratic presidents selected an average of five in their first term.
Presidents rarely make electorally risky choices
The procedures for filling empty Senate seats vary by state. The 10 senators selected for the Cabinet each hailed from a state with a governor from the president’s party who appointed a fellow party member to serve in the Senate until a subsequent special or regularly scheduled election.
In contrast, the Constitution calls for special elections to fill vacant House seats. Presidents consistently have chosen Cabinet members from districts that seemed to present little or moderate electoral risk for their party. For each of the open seats created by presidents’ Cabinet picks, we measured the electoral competitiveness of each district by calculating the margin by which the president’s party won or lost the district in the previous two presidential elections.
The past six presidents had carried each of the 12 vacated House districts when they won the presidency. Their party’s previous presidential candidate had won nine of these 12 districts in the previous election. Trump followed this pattern. He and Mitt Romney had won all four of his Cabinet members’ House districts in 2016 and 2012.
The figure below presents the average margin of victory or defeat for the president and his party’s previous presidential nominee in each newly vacated House district in the two elections before the Cabinet selection.
As you can see, the president and his party’s previous presidential candidate won 13 of these 16 seats by an average of over 10 percent. One exception is the seat that opened up when Carter chose Brock Adams from Washington state’s competitive 7th District as secretary of transportation. Carter had beaten Gerald Ford there by a very slim margin in 1976, but Democrats had decisively lost the district in the 1972 presidential election, indicating that the vacated seat was likely to be electorally competitive. But these dynamics were not the norm — most presidents selected Cabinet nominees only from House districts that appeared relatively secure for the president’s party.
Presidents’ picks sometimes come back to haunt their party
Although the president’s party won the special election for most of these seats, sometimes his choices have proved to be electorally costly for his party.
Democrats lost two seats when Jimmy Carter picked House members from districts where both he and his party’s previous presidential candidate had performed relatively poorly over the prior two elections (MN-7 and WA-7). During Bill Clinton’s administration, Democrats barely won the special election for the seat with the third-lowest prior margin of victory among the districts we examined (WI-1). Still another Clinton Cabinet pick came from a seat that had seemed safely Democratic, NM-3 — but Republicans won that district in 1997, showing that special elections can be unpredictable.
Not all of these were permanent setbacks. Of the three seats lost under Carter and Clinton, Democrats regained two (WA-7 and NM-3) in the next regularly scheduled election. However, the third seat that Democrats lost, MN-7, was held by Republicans for the next 14 years.
In only one case did the president’s party hold the vacated seat in the special election, only to lose it in the next regular election: Wisconsin’s 1st District, which Les Aspin left in 1993 to serve as Clinton’s secretary of defense. Republicans have held that seat since the 1994 midterm elections; in fact, that’s the district represented by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. Of course, there’s no way to know whether longtime incumbent Aspin would have been able to hold the seat through the 1994 Republican wave. But he probably would have had a better shot than his newly elected successor.
Are these special elections a bellwether for 2018?
Like his predecessors, Trump chose members from what appeared to be relatively safe congressional seats. He and Mitt Romney won all four districts by an average of over 10 percent. But the outcome in Georgia’s 6th District is up in the air. Although Romney won the two-party vote there in 2012 by more than 23 percent, last fall Trump won it by only 1.5 percent — suggesting possible peril for the June 20 special election.
Not that losing one seat in Georgia would matter much to the Republicans’ House majority of 239 members, compared with the Democrats’ 194. Indeed, our research found that presidents since Carter made risky Cabinet picks only when their party held a comfortable majority in the relevant chamber of Congress — meaning there wouldn’t be much damage even if their party lost the seat. This could explain Trump’s decision to nominate four sitting House members but only one member of the Senate, where his party’s majority is slimmer.
Still, these early elections could have wide-ranging political consequences. For instance, Trump selected Montana’s lone House member as his interior secretary — thereby depriving the Montana GOP of a leading candidate to take on Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2018.
Furthermore, Trump’s selections have triggered closer-than-expected races just at the time when potential candidates are deciding whether to run for Congress next year. These surprisingly competitive special elections may encourage more quality candidates to run on the Democratic ticket, discourage quality GOP candidates, and even help persuade some House Republicans to retire or run for other office.
If so, then Trump’s electoral risk from these Cabinet picks may be bigger than just the potential loss of one House seat in Georgia.
Brendan J. Doherty is an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Jessica C. Gerrity is managing director in the higher education practice at McAllister & Quinn.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.