Winning Low Turnout Special Elections and Congressional Republicans Retiring Does Not Indicate A Wave Is Forming For Democrats

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*
R Diane Black TN-06 -49.2
R Evan Jenkins WV-03 -47.5
R Raúl Labrador ID-01 -39.4
R Luke Messer IN-06 -38.6
R Todd Rokita IN-04 -34.1
R Kristi Noem SD-AL -29.4
R Lou Barletta PA-11 -22.7
R Jim Renacci OH-16 -17.1
D Tim Walz MN-01 -13.4
R Steve Pearce NM-02 -11.9
D Jacky Rosen NV-03 -3.1
D John Delaney MD-06 +11.8
D Michelle Lujan Grisham NM-01 +13.8
D Jared Polis CO-02 +18.0
D Colleen Hanabusa HI-01 +32.0
D Beto O’Rourke TX-16 +35.4
R John J. Duncan Jr. TN-02 -38.2
R Sam Johnson TX-03 -20.7
R Lynn Jenkins KS-02 -19.6
R Charlie Dent PA-15 -9.0
R Dave Trott MI-11 -7.2
R Dave Reichert WA-08 +0.1
R Ileana Ros-Lehtinen FL-27 +13.9
D Niki Tsongas MA-03 +18.5
* The partisan lean of the district is relative to the nation as a whole. It is calculated by combining the district’s 2016 presidential lean with its 2012 presidential lean; 2016 results are weighted 75 percent, and 2012 results are weighted 25 percent.

SOURCE: ROLL CALL, DAILY KOS ELECTIONS

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
R Sam Johnson TX-03 -20.7
R Lynn Jenkins KS-02 -19.6
R Charlie Dent PA-15 -9.0
R Dave Trott MI-11 -7.2
R Dave Reichert WA-08 +0.1
R Ileana Ros-Lehtinen FL-27 +13.9
D Niki Tsongas MA-03 +18.5
* The partisan lean of the district is relative to the nation as a whole. It is calculated by combining the district’s 2016 presidential lean with its 2012 presidential lean; 2016 results are weighted 75 percent, and 2012 results are weighted 25 percent.
SOURCE: ROLL CALL, DAILY KOS ELECTIONS

Such a finding is not comforting to Democratic hopes of a Congressional resurgence next November.  Neither is the fact that retirements have not always correlated with election results.

In 1999, a study found Representatives will quit if they believe they cannot or will struggle to win reelection.  While true to an extent, politicians also quit for a number of factors and they stink at predicting the future.  As the chart below shows, correlation does not always equal causation (that one is for the stat nerds reading this).

RETIRING SEAT SWING IN ELECTION
ELECTION CYCLE DEMOCRATS REPUBLICANS SENATE HOUSE
2018 1 7 ? ?
2016 10 20 D+2 D+6
2014 15 16 R+9 R+13
2012 21 14 D+2 D+8
2010 14 13 R+6 R+63
2008 3 27 D+8 D+21
2006 6 9 D+6 D+30
2004 10 13 R+4 R+3
2002 7 16 R+2 R+8
2000 7 18 D+4 D+3
1998 15 11 0 D+5
1996 28 18 R+2 D+9
1994 25 9 R+8 R+52
1992 35 23 0 R+10
1990 5 9 D+1 D+8
1988 10 10 0 D+2
1986 10 13 D+8 D+5
1984 4 9 D+2 R+14
1982 13 12 R+1 D+26
1980 20 11 R+12 R+34
1978 28 13 R+3 R+15
1976 24 11 0 D+1
1974 16 21 D+5 D+48
Does not include officials leaving their position to run for another office. Independents are counted as members of the party with which they caucused; members who resigned or died before the election are not counted.
SOURCES: ROLL CALL, BALLOTPEDIA, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS, THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY PROJECT

The data points that stand out, at least recently, are the number of Republicans retiring in 2008 and they got walloped.  But, in both 2010 and 2014, retirements between the parties were fairly even and Republicans gained.  Even last year, two times as many Republicans retired as Democrats and yet the GOP won the Congressional vote by a point and change.

It is true that it is easier to win an open seat than an occupied one (unless you are Bob Brady).  But, where Republicans are retiring are simply not Democratic friendly districts.  Even Dent’s and Trott’s seats are tough gains for the party and Reichart’s district, while trending way from the GOP, has a history of electing Republicans down-ballot.

Democrats can take heart in that we are a long way from November.  But, the next few weeks may determine how many Republicans feel the political environment is slipping away from them.  Traditionally, many pols decide their reelection chances in a midterm soon after the year’s prior Labor Day.  Democrats need to not just hope this happens but the right incumbents call it quits.  So far, they aren’t.

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