Decision 2018: Republicans dodge four bullets (so far)

The 2016 elections rearranged the electoral furniture (so to speak) at the Presidential level: Donald Trump posted numbers in blue collar and rural areas well above the norm for Republican candidates, while longtime Republican strongholds like the metropolitan areas of Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta (even locally, in affluent parts of East Baton Rouge and Jefferson Parishes) showed far more favorability towards Hillary Clinton than originally thought.

But while candidate preferences changed somewhat in the Presidential election, they didn’t change as much in Congressional races, which is why Republicans suffered minimal losses (less than what pundits projected) and remained in control of both houses of Congress last year.

Since his inauguration, President Trump’s approval ratings have declined, but appear to have bottomed out (the weighted average of his approval ratings is 40% approval, 54% disapproval). Still, the changing electoral preferences in the Presidential race, combined with low approval ratings and a sequence of five Congressional special elections, created an opportunity that Democrats sought to exploit as part of their goal of regaining control of both houses of Congress in the 2018 midterm elections.

Now that those special elections have concluded, Democrats have come up empty in the four races with partisan competition (one of the five open seats was in a heavily Democratic part of Los Angeles, California), were the Democrats’ efforts justified? JMC believes that to some extent, they were, and while they didn’t post any victories, these open seat races are a warning sign for Republicans not to take their electoral base for granted, especially considering the President’s low approval ratings.

In the aftermath of these races, the irony is that Democrats outperformed expectations in districts that were not on anyone’s radar. First, a special election race in Kansas resulted in the Republican candidate running seven points BEHIND President Trump. Then a special election in Montana several weeks ago also saw a relatively narrow Republican victory where the Republican similarly ran seven points behind the President. This pattern repeated itself again tonight in a rural district in South Carolina, where the Republican candidate eked out a 51-48% win in a district Trump carried 57-39%. In other words, he ALSO ran six points behind the President.

But it was the race in the northern suburbs of Atlanta that received national attention after a combination of two events: (1) a revelation that this longtime Republican district only supported Donald Trump 48-47%, and (2) a vacancy that was created when its incumbent Tom Price received a Cabinet appointment from President Trump. The special election race that ensued was one of the costliest in history (over $40 million dollars was spent by both sides), but all the money spent didn’t really change the basic contours of the race: a district that supported Donald Trump 48-47% gave 51% of its aggregate vote in the primary to one of the Republican candidates, while the runoff results (52-48% for Republican Karen Handel) were a near carbon copy of the primary and the 2016 Presidential results. There was one side effect of all the attention the district got: turnout tonight was 260K, or 58% (it was 192K in the primary), which is impressive for a special election with one item (the Congressional race) on the ballot.

In addition to the Congressional races, there is an additional data point that needs to be mentioned in the context of the 2018 midterm elections: both Virginia and New Jersey had party primaries for its fall statewide elections. In both states, there was a spike in Democratic enthusiasm: 67% of primary voters in New Jersey (and 60% in Virginia) chose to vote in the Democratic primary, and primary turnout was 70% higher in Virginia and 101% higher in New Jersey than in previous statewide primaries.

Taken together, Democrats are likely to have a good year in 2018, but increased Democratic enthusiasm does not yet seem to be at a level that would indicate 2006/8 sized Democratic landslides. Where the Republicans need to be particularly concerned are the 20+ House Republicans who represent districts that Hillary Clinton (as opposed to Donald Trump) carried, but with midterm elections over 16 months away, there is enough time for endangered incumbents to prepare themselves for a less favorable midterm cycle.