Democrats see early election wins as sign of things to come

Democrats see early election wins as sign of things to come
© Getty

Downbeat Democrats are drawing hope from a handful of state-level special elections as they look to turn opposition to President TrumpDonald TrumpUS, South Korea reach agreement on cost-sharing for troops Graham: Trump can make GOP bigger, stronger, or he 'could destroy it' Biden nominates female generals whose promotions were reportedly delayed under Trump MORE into a boost at the ballot box.

In seven of nine recent contested special elections, the Democratic candidate eclipsed Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGraham: Trump can make GOP bigger, stronger, or he 'could destroy it' Hillicon Valley: China implicated in Microsoft breach | White House adds Big Tech critic | QAnon unfazed after false prediction Jill Biden redefines role of first lady MORE’s margin over Donald Trump in the presidential election, some outperforming Clinton by more than 30 percentage points.

In the eyes of Democrats hoping to capitalize on an unprecedented wave of protests, that’s a promising step.

But Republicans, who now hold more than 1,000 more state legislature seats than they did in 2008, are far from worried. They point to the fact that, since Election Day, Democrats haven’t managed to actually flip a single Republican-held seat in their favor.


The two most prominent Democratic victories came in Connecticut and Delaware in late February, where victories in blue-leaning districts allowed the party to maintain control of the state senates.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez claimed those victories as proof of a rising tide against Trump.

Perez called the victory in Delaware the beginning of the party’s “comeback,” and followed up with a similar statement on Connecticut. 

“Republican politicians across the country should be shaking in their boots at the thought of defending Trump’s disastrous presidency at the ballot box,” Perez said.  

Turns out, Democrats did worse in the Connecticut state Senate district that they won than in any special election, when compared to Election Day results. 

State Rep. Douglas McCrory won the deep-blue district by a margin of 48 percentage points. A big win, but a margin 20 percentage points smaller than Clinton’s in November, according to calculations by The Hill.

But while Democrats suffered a setback in a Virginia state House race in early January, their candidates boosted their vote share in the other seven contested special elections.

The party's best showings came in two Iowa district special elections in December and February. There, Democrats boosted their margin by more than 30 percentage points each, according to local-level data compiled by the elections analysts at the liberal blog Daily Kos.

The next largest gain for Democrats came in a safe red-state House seat in Minnesota, also in February. There, the Democrat outperformed Clinton by about 23 percentage points, but ultimately lost to a Republican.

Then, Democrats boosted their vote share by about 10 percentage points in a reliably red Connecticut state Senate district, 4 percent in both a red Connecticut state House district and the blue Delaware state Senate district. Lastly, the Democratic candidate in a Virginia state senate improved his vote share over 2016 by about 1 percentage point in January. 

But despite those gains, red seats remained red and blue seats remained blue.

These early signals come amid the rise of the Democratic “resistance” to a historically unpopular president, factors that Democrats hope will help flip the script on their almost-decade of state legislative woes. 

Carolyn Fiddler, the communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, told The Hill that the DLCC raised more in low-dollar fundraising over the past two months than in any previous stretch, including presidential years.

“Winning special elections is satisfying, but really drilling down into these numbers and realizing what they represent in terms of Democratic energy and engagement in February of an off-off-year is really what has us excited,” she said. 

“Progressives aren’t just marching — they’re investing in their political future by supporting Democrats every way they can.

David Nir, Daily Kos’s political director, told The Hill that while it’s too early to put too much stock in the trend, he’s “very encouraged so far by the results.” 

“Since Democratic turnout almost always tends to lag in special elections, the fact that our candidates have consistently performed above the margins in last fall's presidential race suggests that the intensity we're seeing from the Trump resistance movement in the streets is translating to the ballot box,” he said. 

But all of those elections took place in districts where Obama in 2012 outperformed Clinton in 2016. So Nir added that the real test will be in districts where Clinton outperformed Obama, like the April special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, to see whether the trend will stick or if it’s simply a reversion to the mean.

Republicans are convinced the special election numbers Democrats are touting are actually nothing more than a slight bump. They point to the lack of flipped seats, despite a major financial and logistical investment, as proof that their rivals are being hasty when they see signs of an anti-GOP electoral wave.

Justin Richards, the political director at the Republican State Leadership Committee, said as much in a memo this week. He argued that Republican gains in blue states like Delaware and Connecticut were what put those state Senates into play in the first place, so Democrats should be expected to hold blue seats. 

And he noted how, even in states where Democratic vote share grew, the party still fell short in flipping any red seat.

“The Democrats played to win each one of those Republican seats and lost,” he told The Hill. 

David Avella, the chairman of GOPAC, a Republican organization that works to boost the party’s ranks in state legislatures, agreed that it’s way too soon for Republicans to sound the alarms, especially as the party has won a bounty of state legislative seats over the past eight years.

“When all you have are scraps, your biggest crumbs are all there is to tout. The Democrats are down to cheering victories in federal and state legislative districts they already held, and defeats by smaller margins in Republican-held districts,” said Avella. 

“When the Democrats win a special election in a Republican-held seat in a Republican-leaning state, then we have a topic for discussion. Until then, they are still underwater.”