Democrats made large gains in the 2017 elections
The 2017 elections have seen a large swing to Democrats vis a vis their results just one year ago. Special House of Representatives elections held in ruby-red, long uncompetitive districts have seen Democrats come tantalizingly close to major upsets. While Democratic wins remain elusive, victories only tell half the story: The near-20 point swing towards Democrats in the 2017 elections indicate that 2018 may very well be a landslide year.
Chart 1 shows that the Republican margin in each district fell, on average, by 17.7 points. Democrats dramatically improved upon their 2016 House showing, due in part to an energized base, an unpopular Republican president, and a national swing to Democrats, as evidence by congressional generic ballot polls.
Donald Trump clobbered Hillary Clinton by 27 points (60-33) in the 84 percent white district. Since 2002, the closest congressional race saw the Republican candidate win by 22 points. Clearly, Democrats are traditionally not competitive in this R+15 state.
Yet Democratic candidate James Thompson lost to Ron Estes, then the Kansas State Treasurer, by only 6.8 points, a dramatic turnaround from both the 2016 presidential and congressional results. Overcoming a 15 point structural disadvantage would be incredibly difficult — clawing back some 9 points and forcing high-profile Republicans to make campaign appearances deep in the GOP’s heartland shows that Donald Trump’s historically low approval among the American people can make competitive safe seats.
Montana has a weird dynamic: It happily elects Democrats as senators and governors, but opts for Republicans at the congressional and presidential level. Since the state has one district, the constituencies are the same at each level. In 2016, it elected a Democratic governor while overwhelmingly voting for Donald Trump and then Representative Ryan Zinke.
Thus, when Greg Gianforte, who lost the gubernatorial race in 2016 decided to try again in the 2017 elections, he stood as the overwhelming favorite. His opponent, Rob Quist, had no political experience and was not a particularly gifted candidate. But the race soon tightened, prompting Donald Trump Jr to venture to the state in hopes of propping up the millionaire Republican.
On Election Day eve, the race took an unexpected twist when Gianforte assaulted reporter Ben Jacobs. This act of violence threatened to tilt and already close contest to the Democrat, but Gianforte survived due in large part to the early vote: Around 2/3 of Montanans had voted before the incident. A poll taken on Election Day showed movement towards Quist, but not enough to overcome the already-cast ballots.
Still, the race showed Democratic competitiveness well away from diverse urban centers, which, along with the KS-04 results, portends a diverse House battleground in next year’s midterms.
South Carolina 05
The race to replace for House Freedom Caucus member Mick Mulvaney flew under the national radar. Mulvaney won the district by 21 points in both 2014 and 2016; Trump underperformed Mulvaney but still won by 18 points, better than his numbers from South Carolina as a whole.
Yet Democratic challenger and political novice Archie Parnell nearly pulled a dramatic upset, falling just shy of defeating state representative Ralph Norman. Parnell benefitted from the race remaining local, allowing the candidates to compete without millions from outside groups being spent or with visits from high-profile officials. The non-nationalized race shows an energized Democratic base and a Republican base in need of massive investments in time and money to be driven to the polls.
The most expensive House race in history drew extraordinary national attention and saw a campaign season last longer than many countries’ national elections. Democrats pinned their hopes on former congressional aide and documentarian Jon Ossoff whereas Republicans opted for Secretary of State and former gubernatorial and senatorial candidate Karen Handel, a well-known politician.
For once, high turnout hurt Democrats. Ossoff failed to improve on his Round 1 results because turnout in the R+8 district that in 2012 voted for Mitt Romney by 23 points. He did, however, dramatically improve upon his 2016 Democratic predecessor, meaning he attracted some Republican support to pull 48% of the vote.
When a heavily Republican district experiences general election level turnout for a special election, Democrats suffer. The other 2017 elections show that Democrats are energized to vote — lower turnout in GA-06 likely would have meant Republicans staying home. Instead, Republicans spent tens of millions of dollar and sent Trump administration officials to the district to spur turnout. And given there are more Republicans than Democrats in GA-06, it follows that more voters would mean more Republicans voting for Handel.
What do the 2017 elections mean for 2018?
The 2017 elections may leave some Democrats discouraged, but they needn’t be. Across the board swings towards the party coupled with high base turnout and lagging Republican turnout indicates that 2018 will be a swing year. If the 2017 elections Democratic swing is applied to all districts, Democrats will walk away from the midterms with a hefty majority.
Of course, such a pronounced swing is unlikely to happen. But the results largely echo the aforementioned generic congressional ballot polls. Taken together, Democrats — as of this writing — may well see a 6-10 point swing across all House districts. That would be enough to make them the majority party. Furthermore, the competitiveness of the 2017 elections in a diverse swarth of districts shows that Democrats will have many battlegrounds in their quest for 2018.
Don’t be discouraged by losses. Recognize the political environment and the pronounced swings to the Democratic Party. Be encouraged for the midterms. Keep organizing, mobilizing, and persuading. These results point to a great election ahead.