What Montana Tells Us

Yesterday, Greg “Bodyslam” Gianforte beat Democratic Rob “Folksinging” Quinn by six points for the open seat contest to replace Congressman Zinke.  Quist, a cowboy hat wearing Sanderista raised over $6 million dollars with Gianforte was a carpetbagger from New Jersey who lost a race for Governor last year.

The race was always an uphill climb for Democrats.  But, a late breaking alleged assault a day before the election, Wednesday night, breathed new life into Quist’s campaign.  Polling pegged the race in the low single digits.  Turned out they were off by a few points.

So what are we to make of the results?  Democrats will argue they were competitive in a state Trump won by 20 points.  Combined with other contests the party is ripe for a great cycle next year.  On the other hand, Republicans held a seat with a weak nominee.

There are a couple clear takeaways.  First, Gianforte’s winning margin was unimpressive but it was hardly a narrow in.  Again, polls had pegged he race a dead heat.  In the end Gianforte apparently tied the Election Day Vote and easily won the Mail In Vote.

Secondly, voters distaste for both candidates showed through in the margin of support for Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks.  He garnered almost six percent while Gianforte barely edged above 50 percent.  Quist did not eclipse 45 percent.

Third, the idea that economic progressives can run in down-scale, white and largely rural areas and win is now 0-2.  Sure, they do better, but they still don’t win.  Let’s also keep in mind this race occurred under the shadow of the GOP passing the ACHA in the House, Trump leaking non-confidential secrets to Russia, leaks about the Manchester bombing coming to the press and the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the ruckus that followed.  It would be hard to find a better short-term environment for a Democrat to run in and Quist still lost.

Now, Montana is a decidedly red state.  But this ignores the fact the state has a purple hue in contests below the Presidential level.  For several decades the state has had two Democratic US Senators.  After a period of GOP dominance at the gubernatorial level Democrats have won four consecutive elections.  Only recently, in 2014, did the GOP win a Senate seat.

Further adding to the quirkiness of Montana is the fact it’s House district is an at-large district making every Congressional race statewide.  Republicans and Democrats at all levels are winning different kinds of voters to gain or hold office.  Put simply, the voters a Senator needs to win are the same a Congressional candidate needs.  Until as recently as 2014, Democrats were winning the same voters for Senate the GOP was to hold the at-large Congressional seat.

This seat should have been ripe to flip.  But, it is also true Democrats that win in these contests do well to distance themselves from the national party.  Quist didn’t.  Indeed, he cozied up to the progressive base while throwing cultural platitudes to Montana voters in his bid.  Didn’t work.

Ultimately, the special election map resembled 2016’s maps with a few twists.  Gianforte ran behind Trump statewide but short of light blue Lewis and Clark County and swing Gallatine County the vote preference was the same (minus the margins).  Ryan Zinke won reelection to Congress by 16 percent and his victories largely resembled Gianforte’s.  In his gubernatorial bid last year, Gianforte ran ahead in almost every county (even Missoula).

The result should prove a cautionary tale for both parties.  Democrats and Republicans need to both understand candidate quality still matters.  Secondly, the progressive grassroots needs to understand running died in the wool Sanders fan in blue-collar, fiscally liberal but socially conservative areas does not guarantee victory.

Lastly, the results in Kansas, Georgia and Montana should not be over-analyzed.  Right now Trump’s approval numbers say Democrats should do well next year.  But the Senate map is stacked against them (for that matter so is the House map) and voters tend to base their votes for Governor on things other than the national mood (see Montana last year).  So next year could resemble 1986 when Democrats did well in Congressional and Senate contests but struggled in state and local races.  We’ll see.

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What Happened In Kansas-4?

The narrative coming into Kansas’s special election for Republicans was they were fighting to hold a ruby red Trump district.  Due to their poor performance in the district it is safe to say Democrats have the momentum and narrative on their siding heading into GA-6 next week.

So what happened in Kansas last night?  Well, in a district that voted for Trump by 27 percent in November, Ron Estes managed to underperform Donald Trump by just a tad less than 20 percent.  Estes managed to run one of the most uninspired campaigns in recent memory and had to fall back on the redness of the district.  I guess you could call this foolish or just running out the clock (ask Hillary how well that always works out).

Until last week the district looked like a lock for the GOP.  That was until local GOP officials looked at early voting numbers and called in the big guns (Pence, Trump and Cruz).  They had reason to be worried.

The early voting numbers were astonishingly in Thompson’s favor.  Out of 15,000 ballots cast he took 61 percent of the vote.  In urban precincts in Sedgewick, the heart of the district, he overperformed Clinton in every district in the city (quite a feat).  But the one thing Thompson could not do was overcome the red tide in the rural areas.  Outside of Sedgewick, Thompson did not win a single county (though winning Sedgewick is a feat by itself).

Obviously, Democrats have reason to gloat.  They singlehandedly turned an R+27 district into a R+5 district in a night.  They also might have hit on a theme in future special elections of allowing their candidates to not be tied to DC Democrats (good luck with that in GA-8).

But, there are several reasons to urge caution here.  First, special elections are low turnout affairs.  In 2016, 274,500 voters showed up to vote for President while turnout barely eclipsed 100,000 this go-round.  Low turnout affairs even in heavily GOP districts tend to hurt the majority party more than the minority party (Republicans being more likely to turn out or not be damned).

Second, Ron Estes ran a horrible campaign in which he basically disappeared and hoped the redness of the district could carry him through.  It did.  But not by much.  Third, national Democrats did not play in this race probably out of fear it would connect Thompson to DC.  This helped Thompson but it also means if the party wants to win in red territory they won’t be able to give many resources to the individual candidates running.

Finally, it is said all elections are local and this one proved to be no exception.  Governor Sam Brownback is extremely unpopular and local Democrats tried to make the race more about Brownback than Trump.  It probably succeeded to a degree.

Moving forward, Democrats don’t have the luxury of running against a unpopular GOP Governor in Georgia, Montana or Pennsylvania.  In Georgia, it won’t be hard for Republicans to tie Ossof to Pelosi and in Montana the GOP has a former statewide candidate on the ballot.  Further, Trump is still popular statewide in Montana and GA-6 according to recently surveys.

If Republicans are smart they will take away from this contest they cannot take anything for granted.  That said, they also should not freak out.  All the circumstances of this special election were unique to this election.  In regular turnout elections, Estes is probably set to win by 20 points more (a return to the electoral norm).  Democrats made this race interesting but it far from guarantees them success moving forward.

What the Delaware State Senate Special Election Tells Us?

Tonight, Delaware hosted a special election in state senate district 10, a Democratic leaning district that looks competitive.  At least on paper.  The district narrowly elected a Democrat in 2014 by a slim 2 percent but voted for Hillary Clinton by 13 percent.  Donald Trump only received 41 percent of the vote last November.

Delaware is a solidly Democratic state at every level.  The state legislature is Democratic and all statewide elected officials (federal and Constitutional) are Democrats.  Democrats have controlled the state senate for 40 years running.  That said, due to GOP gains in the state senate last year and a new Democratic Governor ceding his seat the senate was split 10-10 until tonight.

Democrats and progressives put a lot of effort into the race.  The GOP?  Not so much.  Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley came into the district to campaign as did Joe Biden.  Nobody showed up for Republicans.  Democrats outspent Republicans 4-1 in the district.  The result was an 18 point win for the blue team.  Now the party can continue to safely tax Delaware into oblivion.

What does this tell us?  Nothing.  Literally.  Democrats and progressives reading the tea leaves are sure to call it a great victory and a repudiation of GOP politics.  But, the fact of the matter is the playing field was never level.  Democrats knew they had to win the race and did.  But the district is far from an honest testing ground of whether voters truly are repudiating the man in the White House, and by extension his party, or not.

The question going forward is how much will be read into this election?  Democrats have demonstrated success in blue leaning legislative special elections since November but they have yet to show they have made inroads in GOP territory.  The special election for Tom Price’s suburban Atlanta based district will tell us far more.

 

Do special elections tell us much?

We are only a month into President Trump’s first term and already we have seen a series of special elections with divergent results.  First, a series of special elections in Virginia went as expected with two GOP leaning districts and solidly blue district going their usual way.  But, then a special election in a blue leaning Iowa Senate district went a shade of dark blue.  Most recently, a special election in a Minnesota house district that backed Trump by 29 points favored the GOP nominee by a mere 6 points.

All this begs the question of whether this is a sign of the Trump effect and its consequences for down-ballot Republicans?  Traditionally, it is often Democrats that suffer in low-key special elections, especially in legislative contests.  But, with special elections coming up to determine control of the Delaware, Connecticut and Washington State senates, the trend seems to lean in Democrats favor.  More so, it suggests Democrats are primed to do well in 2018.  Or are they?  Are special elections really that predictive?

A brief look at recent history gives a mixed message.  In 2009, Republicans had an excellent shot at capturing two special elections, John Murtha’s old district and and an-upstate NY district.  In both cases, contrary to opinion polls and the general mood of the country, Democrats won these open seat races.  But, in both cases, Republicans nominated flawed candidates and Democrats ran excellent candidates that fit their districts.  Months later Republicans would gain 63 seats in the House (but neither of these seats).

In 2011, Republicans giddy off their 2010 success believed they could easily hold a conservative, upstate NY seat.  But, the GOP nominated a weak candidate and Democrats smartly nominated a local candidate who ran against the GOP plans to reform entitlements.  Additionally, a wealthy, third-party candidate ran under the Tea Party banner and arguably split the right leaning vote.  The district, older and whiter than most was especially susceptible to such arguments.  Republicans blew the election.  Yet, a mere five months later Republicans would capture a Brooklyn based district in part on fears Obama was turning against Jews.

These elections told us little about the environment heading into 2012.  Indeed, both districts would throw out their special election winners during the Presidential election in November.

Legislative special elections, because they are so common, often give us conflicting stories heading into an election.  For example, in 2013, a WA State Senate special election in a blue leaning district that flipped Republican shifted 6 points from Obama to the Republican candidate.  This seemed to indicate Democrats were in trouble heading into 2014.  Except, Democrats soon after won another special election in the state a month later.

Even more recently, in 2015 Republicans were giddy about taking the Kentucky House for the first time in 100 years.  Yet, in four special elections held in a month, Democrats won three and kept the House.  A few months later Republican Matt Bevin would win the Governorship and a year later the party would almost capture a super-majority in the House.

As hinted at above, special elections often represent the prevailing views of the time and local events.  Sure, it was easy for Democrats to win races in NY by running against entitlement reform and a split opposition just as it was easy for Republicans to run against Obama in an upscale, suburban Puget Sound seat.  Oftentimes, these races can be swung by singular events at the time that fade as a national election approaches.

Legislative special elections might tell us even less than Congressional special elections.  If we took the Virginia legislative results from earlier this year at face value we would assume Republicans would do fine next year.  But, now a series of special elections tell us that might not be the case.  Except, the general election is 21 months from now and Republicans are embroiled in a crisis of rule.  Who is to say this will continue into next year?

Indeed, who is to say it even continues for a few weeks? Republicans have a chance to take the Delaware State Senate for the first time since the 1960’s in a district local Republicans run well in (not so much at the federal level).  If Republicans win this seat the narrative will completely flip.

WA State is also set to have a special election that will determine control of their state senate.  The district went 65-28 for Clinton but has a tendency to elect moderate, Republican legislators (the moderate, Republican incumbent died of lung cancer).  Imagine if Republicans managed to hold this seat?

Finally, a series of Congressional special elections are coming down the pike.  In Kansas, Mike Pompeo’s seat is open.  In South Carolina, Mick Mulvaney’s district is vacant after he became OMB Director.  Finally, the crown jewel for the left is Tom Price’s seat in Georgia.  The seat flipped from a 20+ point district for Romney to a 47-46 win for Trump.  At the same time it elected Tom Price by 20+ points.

Measuring the impact of these districts results is an imperfect art.  Certainly, comparisons to how these districts behaved last year will be the norm.  Little attention will probably be paid to the individual candidates themselves or the local/national issues percolating in each district.  But these results might not tell us much.  National events will play significantly in these races as will the strengths of the candidates themselves.  If anything, the strength of Democratic candidates in a series of special elections (leading to victories) made it seem as if the party was better off than it was heading into 2010 (in fact, Democrats had a streak of Congressional double-digit wins in special elections until 2011).

So, long story short, special elections can tell us something and nothing at once.  They can point to the general trend of politics at one time.  But they tend to be pretty lousy at predicting general election results a year and a half or even months away.