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.

New York a Showcase in Democratic Division

Zephyr and Wu.
Zephyr and Wu.

Andrew Cuomo, heir to a political dynasty and Governor of New York, was supposed to be a shoe-in for reelection and a possible 2016 Presidential contender if Clinton said no to a bid.  But since his overwhelming 2010 victory, Cuomo has struggled to look intimidating.

To be fair, Cuomo’s struggles are not necessarily his fault.  As many Republican leaders have learned in red states, one party dominance tends to lead to ideological schisms and intraparty battles in state parties.  But until now Democrats have reaped the benefits of such squabbles among the GOP.  Now, in NY state and elsewhere, Democrats are dealing with the same issue.

Democrats have had these fights before.  Executive Editor of LiberalOasis, Bill Scher, notes that in both Connecticut and Arkansas these instances have not been kind for the party.  In 2006, in Connecticut, Senator Joe Lieberman was challenged by anti-war candidate Ned Lamont.  Lamont ended up winning the primary 52%-48%.  But Lieberman ran as an Independent candidate and crushed Lamont 50%-40% (I rounded) in the general election.  Exit polls showed that a substantial minority of Democrats, 33%, voted for Lieberman, as did a majority of moderates, 55%, and Independents, 54%.  Lieberman ultimately decided to caucus with the Democrats as an Independent but he irked the party faithful with his support of President Bush’s surge strategy and endorsing John McCain for President in 2008.  He also helped torpedo the Public Option in Obamacare in 2009.

Arkansas Democrats faced a similar dynamic in 2010.  Senator Blanche Lincoln, reviled by conservatives for supporting Obamacare and loathed by progressives for killing the public option, barely won her party’s primary against progressive favorite Bill Halter.  So damaged was she from the primary that she lost to a GOP Congressman by a whopping 58%-37%.

Both Lamont and Halter represented the grassroots element of the Democratic Party that increasingly sees its leaders as pro-corporatism.  But, both Arkansas and Connecticut illustrate that not all Democrats are comfortable with the grassroots mindset.  However, like a sizable minority of Republicans, these partisans tend to not come out and vote in primaries.

In regards to New Y0rk, Cuomo won the primary with 62.2% of the vote.  His running mate, former Congresswomen Kathy Hochul won with 59.1%.  Both of these numbers are underwhelming considering Cuomo and Hochul outspent their opponents by over 20-1.  Further, Cuomo was not exactly a conservative.  Since he has been in office he has raised taxes on the wealthy, pushed through gay marriage legislation, implemented new gun control policies and made New York’s laws regarding abortion argueably the most liberal in the nation.  Still, it is not enough for the party’s base.

The party base has their reasons for griping.  Cuomo has opposed raising taxes to pay for pre-K education (even as he supports its implementation), selected a conservative Democrat for a running mate (Hochul) and been unresponsive to calls for more stringent regulation of Wal Street.

According to some Democrats, like Cuomo/Hochul’s opponents Zephyr/Wu, the answer lies in primary challenges to establishment Democrats.  That has worked out so well for the GOP recently and Democrats in the past why not try it (sarcasm)?  Pragmatic Democrats know this is a bad route to go.  It risks alienating the moderate, suburban voters Democrats have won in recent cycles nationwide.  It also risks creating economic and investment uncertainty amid the business community.  Indeed, Cuomo and Democrats like Jerry Brown in California have not enacted sweeping progressive economic agendas because they know it would stifle their state’s economies.

This does not matter to ideologues like Wu and Zephyr.  They see the advantage their party has now as fleeting and want to enact the progressive utopian vision of higher taxes on the wealthy, more regulation, no charter schools or vouchers, on everybody.  If this vision ever becomes widespread enough in the party to dominate it would mean the GOP and Democrats would be even further apart.  But, ending on a positive note, it could mean a few compromising Republicans and Democrats could get support from the public to end the gridlock and solve state and national problems.  Don’t expect Zephyr and Wu to be those kind of Democrats.