State Watch

GOP worries as state Dems outperform in special elections

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Democrats looking for positive harbingers ahead of next year’s midterms have found comfort in a string of special elections for vacant state legislative seats, ordinarily sleepy races in which their candidates are performing markedly better than the party’s 2016 presidential nominee.

The election results, even in deeply conservative states like Missouri and Oklahoma, are early evidence that the Democratic base is motivated to turn up to vote. That’s a worrying sign for Republicans, who will have to boost turnout among their own voters before next year’s contests. 

“We’ve had our radar up for some time to the Democrats’ increased focus on the state level, and this continues that trend,” said Matt Walter, who heads the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), which focuses on state legislative races. 

On Tuesday, Democrat Jacob Rosecrants took 60 percent of the vote in a state House district in Norman, Okla., where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by ten points last November. In New Hampshire, Democrat Charlie St. Clair won a state House seat in a district in Belknap County that Trump won by 16 points last year.

Rosecrants was the third Democrat to win a previously Republican-held seat in Oklahoma this year. St. Clair was the second Democrat to snag a Republican-held seat in New Hampshire. Democrats also won a Republican-held seat in the New York Assembly, in a Long Island district that had not elected a Democrat since the 1960s.

{mosads}Republicans have only flipped one seat that had been held by Democrats — a deeply conservative district in Louisiana where no Democrat even filed to run.

Democrats think President Trump and his dismal approval ratings are to blame. 

“The Democratic base is agitated and motivated,” said Kurt Fritts, a Democratic strategist who specializes in state legislative elections. “The Trump brand does not go over well even in deep red parts of the country.”

Thirty-two special legislative elections have been held since January in districts where a Democrat has faced a Republican. In 25 of the 31 districts where comparisons are available, the Democratic candidate ran ahead of Clinton, by an average of 12 percentage points.  

At the same time, the Republican candidate ran behind Trump’s performance in 24 of the 31 districts. Those Republicans trailed Trump’s performance by an average of 8 percentage points. 

Five of the remaining six races were blowouts in which one party barely competed. A Democratic candidate fell short of Clinton’s percentage in only one other district, a state Senate contest in Virginia that Republicans won by 13 points.

If Democratic candidates running for Congress next year run 12 points ahead of Clinton, they would reach 50 percent of the vote in 309 U.S. House districts, including in deeply red districts held by members like Reps. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), Randy Weber (R-Texas) and Tim Murphy (R-Pa.).

“Our wins send a clear message to Republicans everywhere that no matter how red the district is, you can’t hide from the shadow cast by the Trump administration,” said Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Comparing special election results to an upcoming midterm election is always fraught: A mere fraction of the electorate turns out in low-profile special elections, and parties rarely spend significant resources on contests that would not put control of a legislative chamber in jeopardy.

Walter pointed to three special legislative elections in Kentucky last spring, races Democratic underdogs won. But last November, Republicans captured enough seats to win control of the Kentucky state House for the first time since the Great Depression. 

“You can misread some of these trend lines,” he said. “We’ll win some, they’ll win some.”

But Republicans have taken note of the results and of a renewed Democratic focus on legislative races, which comes after Republicans scored massive gains over the past several cycles. Former Attorney General Eric Holder is leading an outside group aimed at winning back legislative seats to try to influence the decennial redistricting process, and former President Obama has signaled his support. 

“What’s different this time is the panoply of stars on the other side, from the former president on down, that are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on state races,” the RSLC’s Walter said. “You can see their operational sophistication. They’re learning, and they’re getting better.”

The GOP scored a string of special election victories of its own, holding U.S. House seats in Kansas, Montana, Georgia and South Carolina earlier this year. But it did not escape the GOP’s notice that Democratic candidates bested Clinton’s performance in all four districts.

Republicans concede that Trump and the fanatical devotion he inspires among Republican primary voters will complicate their efforts to navigate tricky political waters next year. 

“Trump’s image is literally the most important thing in a Republican primary,” said one Republican strategist involved in planning for the 2018 midterms. “Because his image is all-consuming and because it’s the most important thing in Republican primaries, no Republican candidate can afford to ignore that sentiment among their primary voters. That is all complicated by the fact that the picture is very different in a general election.”

That Republican pointed to a wave of announcements in the past few weeks that several incumbents who hold potentially competitive districts will not seek reelection. Reps. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), Dave Trott (R-Mich.) and Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) have said they will not run again. They join Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who announced her retirement earlier this year. 

All four seats are likely to be Democratic targets in 2018. 

The drumbeat of Democratic wins is likely to grow in coming months. Republicans are defending open state Senate seats in Florida and Washington between now and November, both in districts Clinton carried in November. 

The Washington district, just outside of Seattle on the east side of Lake Washington, is especially fraught for the GOP: If Democrats recapture the seat, the party will regain control of the state Senate, which Republicans hold by a single seat with the help of a conservative Democrat.

Tags Dave Reichert Donald Trump Eric Holder Hillary Clinton Joe Wilson Randy Weber

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