Two years ago, several national political prognosticators were predicting a strong Democratic election, i.e., “a blue wave,” by using special election results, mostly from state legislative campaigns, as one of their fundamental support arguments. As we know, the forecast proved correct.
To what degree the special election totals were a precursor is difficult to say, but it is reasonable to believe that real time results are a better voting trend indicator than publicly released polls, many of which are methodologically flawed. Therefore, it is worth analyzing similar voting patterns as we approach the 2020 election.
The victory of Republican Mike Garcia in California last week marked the first congressional special election of this election cycle to flip from one party to the other. Republicans have won five of the six special U.S. House contests, including those of Mr. Garcia and Wisconsin state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R–Minocqua), who easily claimed his state’s vacant 7th District, last Tuesday.
The other significant special election occurred late last year. Though Rep. Dan Bishop’s (R–Charlotte) victory in North Carolina came in a seat that historically produced Republican victories, he was certainly considered an underdog at the outset of the special election campaign. He rebounded, however, to score a two-point victory, nonetheless, which in many ways makes it as noteworthy as the Garcia win.
The NC-9 election was necessitated because voter fraud in the 2018 general election prevented the Republican candidate from being certified the winner. After almost a year of keeping the seat vacant, the state’s Board of Elections called a new election that Gov. Roy Cooper (D) scheduled for September 10, 2019.
In the campaign, Mr. Bishop was outspent $7.5 million to $2.7 million and that was on top of the $6.1 million Democrat Dan McCready expended in the 2018 general election. Furthermore, Democratic strategists predicted victory in this race because the Charlotte-Fayetteville seat contains a large suburban population, the type of district where their candidates certainly excelled in 2018, and President Trump’s job approval ratings were languishing around the 40 percent mark at the time. All things considered, the Bishop victory should not be characterized as a routine Republican hold.
According to the Ballotpedia election research organization, during the 2018 voting cycle, 197 special state legislative elections were held around the country, 98 of them in 2017, and 99 in 2018. Republicans risked 110 of the seats, substantially higher than 87 the Democrats were forced to defend. In 2017, Democrats gained a net 11 legislative seats nationally, and eight more in 2018 for a cycle total of 19 net flips (Democrats actually won 26 Republican-held seats, but the GOP took back seven Democratic districts). It was these numbers that largely led the prognosticators to point to changing trends.
In the U.S. House specials during the previous election cycle, 14 contests were held, and Democrats gained a net three seats, but two of those were concurrent with the regular 2018 November election.
During the current cycle, again using Ballotpedia’s research information, a total of 100 state legislative special elections have been held, 77 last year and 23 since 2020 began. In the more contemporary contests, the risk factor was at parity between the two parties with Republicans having to protect 51 legislative seats and Democrats’ 49.
In these current special elections, Republicans have scored a net gain of three seats, all in 2019. Both parties have taken one seat from the other in 2020, but without registering a net national change in party division.
Though the numbers aren’t as stark as what we saw benefiting Democrats during the 2018 cycle, the results are encouraging for Republicans. They could suggest the GOP is positioned for a modest rebound in the coming year despite the chaos of the COVID-19 shut down and what may or may not occur in the presidential race.
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