June 20, 2017 12:37 pm -

They put an idiot in the White House. Now they have to deal with it.

At a local Republican Party dinner here in the lead-up to South Carolina’s special election, GOP candidate Ralph Norman stood next to a Donald Trump campaign poster double the size of his own and heaped praise on the president.

About 230 miles away, Karen Handel—the Republican candidate in Georgia’s special election—stood next to trays of sweet-smelling barbecue and avoided even mentioning Trump’s name under a barrage of questions from reporters.

Those different approaches to Trump from the GOP candidates running in Tuesday’s two special elections illustrate the broader challenge unfolding for Republicans nationally. Conservative base voters, often among the most engaged and reliable voters, still adore Trump even as he faces mounting disapproval from the more centrist voters who are now putting places like the Sixth District of Georgia into play.

That reality, on display in this week’s campaigns, threatens to make it that much tougher to hold together an already-fractious GOP coalition elsewhere in the country as 2018 contests take shape.

“Every Republican running is going to have to deal with that dynamic. I don’t see any way around it,” said Chip Lake, a veteran Georgia Republican strategist. “Donald Trump is a very powerful figure. He elicits very powerful opinions, very strong opinions and emotions, not only on both sides of the political spectrum, meaning R versus D, but he elicits very strong emotions and opinions on the Republican side.”

Republicans acknowledge that trump is the biggest wedge issue they face. Georgis congressional candidate Karen Handel is not having an easy time dealing with it:

Handel has found herself walking a tightrope, willing to appear with Trump but also lobbing the occasional criticism at him, saying during a June debate with Ossoff that she would “recommend some Twitter policy changes.”

“We learned last fall from Joe Heck and Kelly Ayotte you can’t sound like a politician when talking about Donald Trump,” said one Republican watching the race. “Karen Handel has done a great job of showing her support for the president and disagreeing with him in a genuine way at times. During the first debate, I think she said what a lot of folks in the district believe regarding his Twitter behavior.”

Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District is notthe only place Republicans and Democrats are watching.

South Carolina Republicans will be watching the margins of the race in a district Trump won by 18 percentage points, noting that in other deep-red districts, including one in Kansas, special elections in the Trump era have been considerably closer for Republicans than they should be—something they see as linked to a perceived lack of progress in Republican-controlled Washington.

“If [Norman] doesn’t win by 15 points, I think people at least need to scratch their heads a bit,” said Chip Felkel, a longtime South Carolina Republican strategist. “If Norman doesn’t win handily, you have to look at other districts around the country and be prepared to defend them in what’s going to be a full-born assault.”

As Roll Call explains, there may be another reason the South Carolina race hasn’t electrified Democrats.

So why hasn’t Parnell caught on more, nationally?

The fact that his election takes place the same day as Ossoff’s doesn’t help.

South Carolina “got squeezed out of the public consciousness,” said Zac McCrary of Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, the polling firm working for Parnell.

But for some Democrats, Parnell’s background may be one reason he hasn’t sparked the same enthusiasm.

“Part of what we’re seeing is a Democratic base that is not ready to pound the pavement for a Goldman Sachs banker,” said one Democratic operative. It’s also a big reason Parnell hasn’t been able to tap into the same liberal fundraising base that boosted Ossoff and Rob Quist in Montana, said a Democrat familiar with the race.

D.B. Hirsch
D.B. Hirsch is a political activist, news junkie, and retired ad copy writer and spin doctor. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.