Have Special Elections Warped Our Sense of the Midterms?

Published May 3, 2018

The New York Times

The Republican Debbie Lesko’s shockingly close margin of victory in a recent special election in Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District — she won by five percentage points where Donald Trump won by over 20 — again raises the prospect of a blue wave in the midterms. It is true that Republicans have performed abysmally in special elections during the Trump presidency, not only losing a host of previously safe seats but also winning the rest with sharply reduced margins like Ms. Lesko’s. If these results truly depict the state of the electorate, Republicans could be looking at a historically large wipeout.

But special elections differ from the midterms in two important respects. Because they are one-off elections with no other races on the ballot, turnout is often lower than it is for regularly scheduled elections like the midterms. They also do not, by definition, feature incumbents. The combination of both factors in these special elections may be painting a darker picture for Republicans than a fuller analysis warrants.

The Virginia general elections of November 2017 are a case in point. The media takeaway was that the Democrats won all three statewide races and picked up 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates. But virtually all of those seats had been carried by Hillary Clinton the previous year. Moreover, Republican candidates ran ahead of President Trump’s percentage in 25 of the 26 closest races. Non-incumbents ran about 2.5 percentage points ahead of the president, while incumbents ran over four points ahead. If Republican candidates did this well in the fall, Democratic gains would be well short of enough to take over the House.

This is the opposite of what has happened in special congressional elections since Mr. Trump’s inauguration. With two exceptions, the Republican candidate has run between five and nine percentage points behind Mr. Trump’s results. One exception, the special election for Third Congressional District in Utah, also should not give Republicans comfort. While the Republican winner John Curtis ran well ahead of Mr. Trump’s percentage, that number was artificially low because of the candidacy of the conservative Mormon independent Evan McMullin. Mr. Curtis ran 19 percentage points behind Mitt Romney’s percentage in 2012; even when the votes from two conservative minor party candidates are added, the combined Republican-conservative vote was seven percentage points lower than Mr. Romney’s.

The other exception, however, is in line with what we saw in Virginia. The Republican Karen Handel, in a special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, had been a local and statewide official for over a decade before her House campaign. She had also twice run for statewide office, carrying the areas in this district in botraces. She was not an incumbent, but voters throughout the district knew her and had previously supported her as they would an incumbent. Despite her Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, spending a record $31 million against her, she prevailed relatively easily, winning by 52-48 percent. More important, she ran about 3.5 percentage points ahead of President Trump’s showing in that district, in line with what we saw incumbents do in the Virginia elections.

These observations suggest that the race to control the House is still one that Republicans can win. Republican-held congressional seats that Mrs. Clinton carried where the incumbent is not running, such as Florida’s 27th, are almost certainly lost. So, too, are Republican-held seats with incumbents where Mrs. Clinton carried by five or more percentage points (although some of those incumbents might squeak through). But only 16 seats fall into one of those categories. To win the House, Democrats must take out Republican incumbents or win open seats narrowly leaning to the G.O.P.

This will be much harder to do if this analysis proves correct. Most Republican incumbents will prevail if they can simply run equal to President Trump’s percentage. There are only an additional 19 Republican-held House seats that Mrs. Clinton carried by less than five points or that Mr. Trump carried with less than 50 percent of the vote. Republican incumbents could do much worse than their Virginia House of Delegates counterparts and still largely retain their seats. That in turn would mean that either Democratic control of the House after the midterms would be very narrow or, shocking as it would be to many now, the Republicans could retain control.

Incumbent officeholders do tend to run equal to or ahead of their party’s presidential candidate even in terrible election years for their party. For example, three of the five Senate Democrats defeated for re-election in 2014 ran ahead of President Obama’s share of the vote two years earlier. They lost mainly because they were representing very Republican states in a highly partisan age. Most Republican-held House seats are not in predominantly Democratic areas. As noted above, there are not enough G.O.P.-held seats in places Mrs. Clinton carried by five percentage points or more — what we might think of as normally Democratic territory — to enable the Democrats to retake the House.

If Republican incumbents don’t retain any personal voter loyalty, however, the fall could be a blood bath for Republicans. Twenty-four incumbents represent seats that Mr. Trump carried with less than 55 percent and with less than a 10 percentage point margin in 2016. Adding those to the 35 seats mentioned above means Republicans could be staring at a 2010-style wipeout with House losses in excess of 50 seats if the special election results are a harbinger of what is to come.

The blue tsunami scenario could yet come to pass, but consideration of all the evidence provides a glimmer of hope for Republicans. Perhaps the traditional incumbent advantage will keep the Republican ship afloat if the focus is on reluctant Trump voters, the Republicans who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 despite not liking him and campaigns are well run. Talking only to the base and hoping that the president’s numbers will rise will make November a very gloomy month for Republicans.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an editor at UnHerd.com. He is the author of “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.”

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