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As suddenly as the window of opportunity blew open for Republicans by the winds of change last November with the election of President Trump, some fear that a string of GOP congressional special elections are evidence—although limited in nature—that the party’s opportunity to enact its agenda may be winnowing already, if not positioning itself to slam shut. 

Republicans not only have control over both Houses of Congress in Washington, but also have control of 34 governor’s mansions—up from 31 in 2016 and the high-water mark since President Warren G. Harding used a radio for the first time in the White House (and only four shy of the threshold to amend the Constitution on a party-line vote). 

The 34th GOP governor is West Virginia’s Jim Justice, who began his political career as a Republican, but switched to run and win as a Democrat in 2016, only to revert back to the GOP in dramatic fashion this past August. 

At the local level, Republicans also control 69 of the 99 legislative chambers in state capitals across the country, an all-time high. 

Being on such a historically dominant roll, it might seem like the results of the four special congressional elections held earlier this year to fill the seats of members who resigned to join the Trump administration would continue on the same trajectory. And while no one expected the GOP to lose any of these brightly red districts, they did prove to be “special,” and possibly a lens through which to view the 2018 midterm elections.

On April 11, Republican Ron Estes won a special election to fill Kansas’ 4th congressional district’s seat vacated by Mike Pompeo, who now acts as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, by 6.8 percent. Five months earlier, Pompeo carried the district by 31 percent.

On May 25, Republican Greg Gianforte won Montana’s at-large congressional district vacated by Ryan Zinke, now head of the Department of Interior, by 6.1 percent. Zinke carried this district by 16 percent six months earlier.

On June 20, Republican Ralph Norman won South Carolina’s 5th congressional district’s special election by 3.1 percent, a seat vacated by Mick Mulvaney, now running the Office of Management and Budget. Mulvaney won the district by 20.5 percent seven months earlier.

Also on June 20, Republican Karen Handel won Georgia’s 6th congressional district vacated by Tom Price, the former head of the Health and Human Services Department, by 3.8 percent. Seven months earlier, Price carried the district by 23.4 percent.

These four post-Trump elections could serve as circumstantial evidence that the Republican’s political pendulum has reached its apex and is now moving back in the opposite direction, or they could be viewed as merely the results of unrelated, personality-driven campaigns flushed with outside cash and within an exhausted electorate. 

The president and Republicans in Congress certainly sense the urgency facing them. As 2017 winds down, they face some of their biggest challenges (e.g., tax reform, debt ceiling and funding the federal government). These next few months will show how Republicans will lead and deliver or fail to produce what was promised. 

In 2017, only two states will elect governors: New Jersey and Virginia. While both states voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, the off-year election and the fact that neither race has the benefit of an incumbent candidate could mean they serve as potential bellwethers for 2018. 

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie’s Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the first and only person to ever serve as a lieutenant governor in New Jersey, is the Republican nominee in a race against former Goldman Sachs executive and Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy, the Democratic party’s nominee.  

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, former Democratic National Committee Chairman and current Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam, who also served as a U.S. Army medical doctor and state senator, is running against Republican Ed Gillespie. In 2014, Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee Chairman and Capitol Hill lobbyist, lost a campaign by less than 1 percent to defeat U.S. Senator Mark Warner. 

Arguably, on a local level, Northam’s victory in Virginia would be a testament to the recent resurgence and long-term resiliency of the Democratic party in an increasingly diverse state with a deep cultural heritage. Despite the relatively recent victory of George Allen (1993) followed by his successful handoff to Attorney General Jim Gilmore (1997) and later on to former Attorney General Bob McDonald (2009), only nine Republicans have ever served as governor in the history of the Commonwealth, and three of them (Pierpont, Wells and Walker) were appointed by the United States Army following the Civil War. 

At its core, Virginia is a state that Democrats should win. More to the point: If Gillespie were to win, it would not be a testament to the president’s party “agenda” or anything other than this particular Republican’s hard work, good messaging and persistence.

In New Jersey, the recent history of Republicans and Democrats to live in Drumthwacket has been a merry-go-round of corruption and scandals involving eight governors in only the last 16 years. 

Absent the scandals, New Jersey also has been rather streaky in voting for the Democratic nominee for president in the last seven elections (1992-2016) while supporting the Republican nominee in the previous six elections (1968-1988).

If Murphy wins in New Jersey, it will be no surprise, and will offer no guidance as to whether the window of opportunity for Republicans to enact their agenda in Washington, New Jersey and anywhere else is closed or closing. There will be no calls of panic or any accelerated sense of urgency. 

The bottom line is, while the particularly special (i.e., alarmingly close) and regularly scheduled elections in 2017 might be classified as personality-driven or brand-driven local elections that present no urgency for Republicans to consider the timeliness of the pendulum’s swinging blade or the closing of their political window of opportunity, gravity is a force of nature that the GOP will need to defy in 2018. 

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