Last week was a pretty good week for Democrats. The party flipped an open legislative seat in Oklahoma and a seat in New Hampshire. According to Daily Kos both of these seats were deeply red seats (yes, Oklahoma, not so much New Hampshire). Additionally, Representatives Charlie Dent (PA) and Mike Trott (MI) announced they were stepping down at the end of 2018. Both are considered by battlegrounds (though both lean definitively Republican).
Combined with the generic ballot basically mirroring Trump’s approval rating this is supposed to indicate next year will be a boon to Democrats. Except for the fact that many of the things Democrats are crowing about are reversions to the norm for some districts, due to low turnout wins in special elections and a weak correlation between retirements and election wins.
Let’s start with Democrats seven special election wins in legislative contests in Oklahoma and New Hampshire. Last week, Democrats won two contests in New Hampshire and a third contest in Oklahoma. The New Hampshire seats had favored Trump while the seat in Oklahoma flipped a whopping 40 points from 2016.
That sounds great on the surface. Except, the New Hampshire house seat had a Democratic representative as recently as 2012 and narrowly backed Obama. It reverted to being heavily Republican only for Trump and returned to form last week.
The situation in Oklahoma is different. Local factors seem to be at play here. The state is facing a budget crisis and is under complete GOP control. The GOP has taken a hammer to its biggest spending line item-education. As a result, two GOP controlled districts flipped over the summer. The third was last week.
But, here is a dirty little secret, in each district turnout was HALF of what it was in 2014. In other words, Democrats are not winning these races because they are winning new votes nor are they seeing a surge of new voters. They’re winning because of local factors and few, if any, Republicans are excited to vote in Oklahoma.
Contrast this with GA-6, where federal issues drove voters of both parties out in mass and the GOP turnout advantage showed. You don’t win multitudes of seats by hoping the other side does not turn out.
Local factors like Oklahoma have also played out in Connecticut. While Democrats have outran Clinton in 28 of the 35 special election contests to date, in Connecticut it is a different story. The state has a billion dollar plus deficit, is completely controlled by Democrats and as a result the GOP has outran Trump in all three special elections in the state (sound familiar).
Remember, Democrats are not winning states in truly neutral environments. Yes, they are winning red seats but the odds they hold them considering how few TOTAL voters are actually going to the polls is indicative Democrats still have major structural problems.
Now, turning to the other item on the ledger, Congressional retirements. A recent spate of GOP retirements has Democrats salivating at the prospects. On the surface such retirements bode well for Democrats, simply because they do not have to face entrenched incumbents. But a deeper dive shows many Republicans are vacating safe seats to run for higher office. Not because they fear a bad political environment.
|PARTY||INCUMBENT||DISTRICT||SEEKING HIGHER OFFICE||PARTISAN LEAN OF DISTRICT*|
|D||Michelle Lujan Grisham||NM-01||✓||+13.8|
|R||John J. Duncan Jr.||TN-02||-38.2|
Only two Republicans vacating their seats actually occupy Democratic leaning seats. Plus, there are 47 more Republicans in Congress than Democrats. This means statistically more Republicans should retire or run for higher office than Democrats.
Even if one considers the chart below, including the recent retirements of Reichart, Trott and Dent, the seats they are leaving are GOP leaning. Plus, Trott’s seat still backed Trump last year despite being the most college educated district in Michigan.
|PARTY||INCUMBENT||DISTRICT||DEMOCRATIC LEAN OF DISTRICT*|
|R||John J. Duncan Jr.||TN-02||-38.2|