The 2016 Presidential election was a realignment election just like previous Presidential elections in 2008, 1992, and 1980 were. In 2016, Donald Trump rewrote the rules of victory that had been in place between 1992 to 2012 by making substantial gains in ancestrally Democratic rural and/or blue-collar areas. As he was adding those voters to the Republican coalition, he was able to minimize defections in support from white-collar professionals in places like Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta (and in Louisiana, parts of East Baton Rouge and Jefferson Parishes).
This strategy was a critical component of his electoral college victory, because he was able to crack the Democratic dominance between 1992 and 2012 in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin with plurality wins in those three states that had not voted Republican for President since 1984/1988. Fortunately for Trump, while white-collar areas showed more affinity than normal for Democrats (or at least Hillary Clinton), they still voted Republican in other non-Presidential (i.e, gubernatorial, Congressional, and legislative) races.
However, since the Trump inauguration, the steady decline in his approval rating (as well as a relatively light legislative output) has re-energized the Democratic party to a level not seen since 2008, and with this newfound partisan energy, they have seen repeated success in special (and some regular) elections by wresting control from Republicans in over three dozen legislative special election victories. They have also consistently exceeded their 2016 showing in several Congressional special elections, thus forcing Republicans to exert time and energy to defend what were thought to be safely Republican seats.
This partisan energy further manifested itself in elections last fall in Virginia. Not only did Democrats win every statewide race for the first time in years, but Democrats also made massive gains in what was thought to be a substantially Republican state House. Similarly, in Alabama, suburban Republican defections due to a gravely flawed Republican Senate candidate (Roy Moore) was also combined with Presidential level turnout among minority voters, and a combination of those two events put Democrat Doug Jones over the top – the first time a non incumbent Democrat has been elected to a Senate seat in Alabama since 1986 (when, incidentally, Democrats retook control of the U.S. Senate).
Last night in Pennsylvania, the Republicans again suffered a costly upset in a special Congressional election in a district that Democrats didn’t even contest in 2014 or 2016. Furthermore, this suburban/rural/blue-collar district in the outskirts of Pittsburgh had steadily moved to the right over the last few election cycles and supported Trump 58-38%. As this article is being written, Democrat Conor Lamb has a narrow 641 vote plurality lead over Republican Rick Saccone (1,378 voted for a Libertarian candidate). This Democratic victory is arguably a “Scott Brown in reverse” for Congressional Republicans, and as will be explained later, may be a harbinger of a Democratic Congressional landslide not seen since 2006 or 2008.
“John Bel” Lamb
When examining the results of this race, patterns of partisan support eerily mirrored the Presidential race last year, at least in terms of what are becoming the new voter bases for Democrats and Republicans. The white collar suburbs of Allegheny County had voted 50% for Donald Trump but only gave 42% support for the Republican. The other three counties were a mix of suburban, rural, and blue collar communities, and in those counties, the 56% support that the Republican candidate (Saccone) received was similarly an eight point drop from Donald Trump’s 2016 level of support.
However, beneath the patterns of partisan support it’s also important to note the messaging strategy that each candidate used, because there are midterm implications here for both parties. While Republican Rick Saccone bragged that he “was Trump before Trump was Trump”, national Republicans attempted to stoke fears about Democrat Nancy Pelosi becoming Speaker of the House again. On the other hand, the strategy employed by Democrat Conor Lamb was not just to run a non partisan campaign (he declined to accede to demands from Democratic activists that Trump be impeached, he emphasized his desire to “work with anybody”, and he said he would not vote for Nancy Pelosi for House Speaker), but he also emphasized his background as a former Marine and prosecutor and took “Republican-ish” stands on guns and abortion (he emphasized his opposition to any new restrictions on gun ownership). This non-partisan approach that smartly avoided Republican tripwires on issues like guns and abortion, in fact, is nearly a carbon copy of the campaign messaging used by Democratic governor John Bel Edwards (who, incidentally, was an Army Ranger). In his 2015 race for Governor of Louisiana, Edwards upset an incumbent Republican US Senator by a 56-44% margin (the largest margin for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since Edwin Edwards defeated David Duke in 1991) in a state Trump carried 58-38%. Thus, the “John Bel” Lamb analogy, because this campaign messaging by Democrats can work in today’s electoral climate, and Republicans would be wise to take heed of this change in the political climate.
Looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections
There have been two constants since the November 2016 elections: (1) people are increasingly voting the party line for both Presidential and down ballot races, and (2) Democrats have consistently outperformed Hillary Clinton’s showing in race after race. And given that in four of five Congressional special elections (Georgia was the one exception), GOP support has been consistently 6 to 9% below what Donald Trump received in 2016, Congressional Republicans in districts that voted less than 56-59% for Trump can (and should) no longer believe they have a safe seat. To put this in numerical terms, 107 House Republicans (nearly half the Republican delegation) hold a seat where Trump received less than 56% of the vote. And 139 House Republicans hold a seat where Trump received less than 59% of the vote. These are substantial numbers when you consider that Republicans can only afford to lose a net of 23 seats and maintain their House majority.
Republican strength will be similarly tested in an Arizona special election in April (Trump carried this district 58-37%) and in a special election in Ohio in August (Trump carried this district 53-42%). Given that both of these seats are white collar districts in urban areas, Republicans can’t feel entirely safe in either district, since it’s precisely these kinds of districts that have seen a noticeable drop in GOP performance since the spring of 2017.