By Wednesday morning—after returns are in from New Jersey, Virginia, and a few special state legislative elections—we will have a small but hopefully meaningful set of clues about the mind-set of the electorate going into the pivotal 2018 midterm elections.
Most importantly: Will Democrats be able to harness the intensity of opposition to President Trump and translate that into higher voter turnout for their candidates?
So far this year, special congressional elections have been a disappointment for Democrats. Technically speaking, they are 0-4 in opportunities for House pickups, though in my mind three of those chances were more theoretical than real. Given the problems that Democrats are increasingly having in districts with large rural and small-town populations, the April 11 special election in Kansas to replace now-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, the May 25 Montana contest to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and the June 20 South Carolina balloting for the seat previously held by Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney were fights that Democrats never had a realistic chance of winning. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would have preferred to leave those races alone but were bludgeoned into getting involved by the exuberant liberal netroots, often untroubled by pragmatic considerations.
The real test was in the Georgia race to fill then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s seat. Democrats led in polling for much of the contest, but Republicans did a great job of nationalizing it, boosting turnout to a level unprecedented in a stand-alone special congressional election. The GOP made House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi the focal point in a heavily Republican, but not enthusiastically pro-Trump district, delivering a real psychological setback for Democrats.
The evidence of strength for Democrats is better in special state legislative elections this year. The political data company Quorum Analytics reports that there have been 52 state legislative special elections this year, with eight of 30 GOP-held seats flipping to Democrats, and just one of 22 Democratic-held seats flipping to the GOP. A Quorum analysis reveals that Trump had carried seven out of the eight districts the GOP lost this year, averaging 56 percent of the vote in the eight. In the seven districts that Democrats picked up, their candidates averaged a 13-point swing from last year’s presidential result. And Quorum notes that there are 44 more special state legislative contests between now and the end of the year that will give us an even bigger sample to examine.
In New Jersey, the only real race to watch is the one for governor. Democrat Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker and Obama appointee as ambassador to Germany, is expected to win handily. Between Trump’s low job-approval ratings and departing GOP Gov. Chris Christie’s historically low poll numbers, Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno never had a chance. Expect a big Murphy win; if it’s even close, that would be a hopeful sign for Republicans.
Virginia is where most eyes will be Tuesday night. In the gubernatorial race, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam should be favored over former Republican National Committee Chairman and lobbyist Ed Gillespie. Polls over the last month have been all over the place—from Northam up by 13 and 17 points to Gillespie up by 8 points—while the RealClearPolitics average as of Monday afternoon had Northam up by 3.3 percentage points.
Three things are making Democrats jumpy. First, the private polling on both sides shows the race tightening, with surveys using actual voter rolls finding the race closer than those using random-digit dialing. Second, Democrats are still smarting over Gillespie’s strong and surprising finish in his challenge to Sen. Mark Warner in 2014. Finally, after last year’s presidential outcome, Democrats are like a football receiver who has recently had his clock cleaned—they hear footsteps, both real and imagined. (It should be noted that 2016 polling in Virginia called correctly Hillary Clinton’s win and 5-point margin there.)
A Northam win by 3 points or more would be a victory for Democrats, a Gillespie win by even one vote would be a triumph for Republicans, and anything in between would be, well, in between. Cook Political Report House Editor and Virginia expert David Wasserman believes the downballot House of Delegates races are a good test of how Virginia is trending. Republicans have a 66-to-34-seat advantage. Wasserman believes that if Democrats pick up four seats or fewer in the legislature, it will be a disappointing night for their team. A five-to-nine-seat Democratic gain would be a good night for them, and picking up 10 or more seats would be a big win.
Whatever happens, we will soon have some hints about which way the winds are blowing for 2018.