Democrat Conor Lamb’s upset win last week in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District has led many observers to claim an electoral tsunami is about to hit Republicans. Perhaps it will, but that is far from clear now. Lamb’s performance is unlikely to be the norm for Democratic candidates this fall for a host of reasons. Republicans may lose the House, but they are not likely to lose the 50-60 seats so many prognosticators suggest the Lamb victory implies.
Huge gains in the House normally occur when one party holds many seats that the other party’s presidential candidate carried in the previous election. The 2010 “wave” election is a case in point. The Republicans gained 63 House seats that year, but almost all of them were in the 48 districts that Democrats had held but were carried by John McCain in 2008. Republicans currently hold only 25 seats that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and over half of those had been carried by Mitt Romney just four years earlier. That simple fact makes massive Democratic gains much less likely without extraordinary circumstances.
Democrats argue their strong showing in special elections during the Trump era demonstrate those circumstances exist. Democrats have thus far captured 42 state legislative, gubernatorial, or federal seats from Republicans since 2017 while Republicans have only gained four from the Democrats. Democrats also gained 15 State House seats in Virginia’s regularly scheduled fall elections and three seats in New Jersey’s legislature. That clearly indicates a turn against the GOP in those states.
Democrats are even more excited about how far ahead of Hillary Clinton their candidates are running in many of these races. The best way to assess the magnitude of partisan gains is to compare a winning candidate’s margin to the margin obtained by a candidate of the same party in a presidential election. Conor Lamb’s narrow win, for example, was roughly 20 percent ahead of Hillary Clinton’s more than 19 percent loss to Trump in 2016. According to statistics compiled by the progressive website Daily Kos, Democrats ran 10 percentage points ahead of the presidential margin in all 2017 special elections and an amazing 24 percentage points ahead in specials held so far this year. If Democrats do anything close to that in the fall midterms, Republicans are facing a tsunami of epic proportions.
There’s good reason, however, to think those figures won’t hold. Special elections, especially for smaller state legislative races, are much like presidential caucuses: low-turnout affairs where the most motivated voters determine the outcome. In caucuses that means the party ideologues, left and right, normally prevail. In specials, it normally means the party out of power has the edge. That’s especially true this cycle because Donald Trump enrages Democrats across the board. For them, every election is a rerun of 2016 and every Republican is really named Trump. Looking only at special elections, therefore, exaggerates the advantage they will likely possess in November.
Last fall’s regularly scheduled statewide elections in Virginia and New Jersey provide a better guide for midterm turnout patterns, and those races tell a more optimistic tale for Republicans. Democratic victors for governor only outran their party’s presidential margin by about 3.6 points in Virginia and did not exceed it at all in New Jersey. Some of the Virginia candidate’s gain was attributable to local factors, too. Democrat Ralph Northam represented the populous Virginia Beach region in the State Senate for years before becoming Lieutenant Governor. He outperformed Clinton on the margin by between 10 and 19 percent in this area, well ahead of his statewide performance. Most Democratic candidates this fall will not have a similar regional home field advantage.
The massive gains in Virginia’s House of Delegates also do not point to a blue wave. Clinton carried 14 of the 15 seats Democrats gained, and Trump won the other seat by a mere half a percent. The Democratic delegate candidates ran behind Clinton’s margins in nine of those seats, including two where they ran behind her by 10 or more points. Their marginal gain was five or six points in only two seats; in the other four, they ran roughly even or only slightly ahead. In Virginia, when the GOP had everything on the line Democrats performed nowhere near well enough to produce an epic fall landslide.
New Jersey’s election saw similar results. Democrats took away two seats from Republicans in both the Senate and the Assembly. (A popular GOP state assemblyman took a heavily Democratic state Senate seat away, running 19 points ahead of Trump’s losing margin.) Clinton carried each of those seats, and the Democratic victor either ran behind or even with her margin in three of them. In the fourth, the winner only outpaced her by less than 5 percent. Again, even in deep blue New Jersey a general election effort dramatically reduced the scale of Democratic gains.
This fall’s midterms will look much more like last fall’s races than special elections. Forty-seven states will have full general elections with either a gubernatorial or senatorial race at the top of the ticket. Only Kentucky, North Carolina, and Louisiana will not have a statewide race, and Kentucky and North Carolina will feature a general election for all state house seats. Thus, GOP efforts—and, likely, GOP turnout—will resemble the Virginia and New Jersey races more than they will resemble PA-18.
That still doesn’t mean the GOP won’t face strong headwinds. If the results this fall resemble what happened in those two states, GOP House control will be endangered and the party will lose many governorships. If instead Democratic performance looks like something in between the specials and last fall’s general election, the Democrats will take over the House and very few GOP gubernatorial candidates will triumph in any state that has been closely contested in the last decade. But even those gains are likely to fall well short of the sort of predictions many Democratic partisans are spreading.
Even the most positive outlook, however, cannot be viewed as good for Trump partisans.
One cannot make America great again if most Americans don’t agree with you. President Reagan had a similarly poor midterm, but that occurred during the then-worst economic downturn since 1938. When the economy recovered so did the Gipper. This political downturn is occurring during an unprecedentedly long recovery, one that is gathering steam rather than slowing down. If Americans don’t like what they see when times are good, we can only imagine what they will think when times, inevitably, get worse.
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