Juan Williams: What will it take for Democrats to start winning?

Editor's note: The following column originally appeared in The Hill newspaper and on TheHill.com.

Will Democrats win any of these special Congressional elections?

Republicans won the May special election for Montana’s congressional seat even after their candidate throttled and body-slammed a reporter. The upcoming special election in Georgia remains close even with a weak Republican candidate.

So, what will it take for Democrats to start winning?

First, the Montana fisticuffs showed that Republicans can react volcanically to questions about President Trump’s failed effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare. Their candidate went ballistic when the reporter, Ben Jacobs of The Guardian, asked about the projected higher premiums and fewer people insured under Trump’s healthcare plan.

Second, last week’s poor jobs numbers and Trump’s lack of progress on tax reform offer more evidence that the GOP lacks a strong record for its candidates to run on.

And, third, the Democratic base is fired up. With Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate deal, the party is definitely unified in its fury at him.

But with the president retaining strong support among his GOP base, are these hopeful signs just mirages similar to the illusions that led Democrats to think Trump could never be elected president?

Is there any concrete reason to think that the nation’s politics have changed enough to give the Democrats the 24 seats they need to take control of the House and set themselves up to defeat Trump in 2020?

In Montana, the Democratic candidate lost by only six points while Hillary Clinton, the party’s 2016 presidential nominee, lost by 20. That margin narrowed even as the GOP outspent the Democrats. And most people voted long before the Republican, Greg Gianforte, resorted to violence.

Daily Kos Elections reports that, as of May 25, there had been 18 special elections for Congressional and state legislative seats. Democrats have done better than Clinton in 12, averaging a margin of 11 percentage points better than their 2016 presidential nominee.

That led Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of the Crystal Ball newsletter from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, to conclude: “Democrats can point to overall special election trends that suggest the opportunity for significant gains next year if they can be replicated on a nationalized scale.”

That forecast fit with Clinton’s prediction at a tech conference last week that it is “certainly realistic” for Democrats to win the House majority in the 2018 midterm elections.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced last month that it was expanding the targets for GOP-held House seats in 2018 beyond the 23 districts currently represented by a Republican but won by Clinton. They are now aiming at an incredible 79 seats.

Before he withdrew from the climate deal, Trump’s approval rating was underwater by 14 points: Gallup reported last week that the president’s job performance was approved by 40 percent of the country, while 54 percent disapproved.

And don’t forget the FBI, special counsel and congressional probes into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, which could totally derail any GOP policy agenda before the 2018 races.

A Politico/Morning Consult Poll last week found that 43 percent of voters want impeachment proceedings right now.

A Quinnipiac University poll last month found the president with the support of just 29 percent of self-described independents — a group with which he had scored plurality support last November.

But all that is noise inside a political bubble unless there is a winning message from Democrats that goes beyond another dose of fury at Trump and speaks directly to voters.

Last week brought news that a group of Democrats had formed the People’s House Project to elect left of center candidates. The new group’s goal is to give Democratic candidates in the Midwest and rural areas a new look, with a jobs-first focus and free from Republican attacks on the party as a coalition of elites, young people, and minorities.

“It will allow them to say, ‘I’m a different kind of Democrat,’ ” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who supports the effort.