A Few Thoughts on This Year’s Special Congressional Elections

Yesterday, a message appeared in my inbox: a DM had come over from a Democratic volunteer in South Carolina. She had been watching the race in the 5th Congressional district carefully, even after it had been passed over by much of her Parry in favor of the far more exciting contest in the Atlanta suburbs. We’ve had volunteers from all walks of life, all stripes, and I’ve gotten used to their individual biases, so while her enthusiasm and insistence that Democratic turnout had leaped enough to make things interesting may have been brushed aside by some, I kept it in the back of my mind. We were always going to cover the race, but I kept my eye on it during last night’s broadcast because her energy fell in line with what we had seen elsewhere this year: increased Democratic efforts and a hard grassroots push.

In the end, South Carolina’s race was closer than Georgia’s. Both saw Republican margins reduced dramatically from previous Congressional performances, and this overall shift has been analyzed to death this morning. But the Democrats are 0-4 in special elections. So where does that leave us with regards to the midterms?

  • Losing a string of specials doesn’t eliminate your chance of a big midterm win, especially when you are the out party, and the President is underwater in approval. Democrats eroded the margins, and if you applied their current generic ballot advantage to the national Congressional map, you can see a Democratic majority. Republicans lost seven straight special elections in the early years of the Obama administration, but then won over sixty seats in the first midterm. But
  • Democrats will be facing a slew of incumbent Republicans, and the advantage of incumbency can’t be overstated. Most members of Congress, even in a wave election, win re-election. Had Ossoff won last night, worried Republicans may have begun drafting their retirement announcements. But with winning the most profiled and expensive House race ever, all but the weakest-kneed members are telling themselves, at least right now, “meh, I’ll survive next year.” Democrats have made suburban voters, many of them Republicans who couldn’t pull for Trump, a considerable part of their strategy next year. But
  • When push came to shove, Republican suburbanites in Atlanta stuck with the party, delivering Karen Handel a larger win than they did Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton. These voters are, as of this moment, still happy to vote Republican, and that loyalty will be tough to break and a big challenge for Democrats. For the Democrats to win next year, they need to break these voters out, or hope they become disillusioned enough to stay home. They’ll make the difference in seats like Barbara Comstock’s in VA-10, Dana Rohrbacher’s in CA-48, and Ryan Costello’s in PA-6.

There are still more special elections this year, and of course two gubernatorial contests. It’s still just a smattering of races, and I’d urge people to look at them in isolation in addition to their margin averages and “broad picture” divinations. There are lessons for both Republicans and Democrats in campaign strategy, rhetoric, ground game, a whole host of things that will impact the numerous contests we’ll see next year.

And we’ll be ready to cover each and every one of them.