Bellwether? Dems overperformed in another special election this week

AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

It’s bedwetting season. What better way to pass the time than by obsessing over special election results that may or may not portend Democrats doing better than expected in the midterms?

Aaron Blake went through the recent history of special elections held in election years to see how often they predict how a party will fare in the fall. His answer: Er, sometimes? In 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018, there were special elections one could point back to at year’s end as early indicators that the winning party would end up doing well in November. But there were also examples from 2010 and 2020 where special elections broke for the party that ended up losing in the fall. Certainly, then, special election results aren’t foolproof as bellwethers. But they’re … interesting, as a snapshot of the public’s mood.

What are we to make of this result from Tuesday night in Minnesota, then?

A Republican victory in MN-01 points to a Republican wave in November, right? Not exactly. The result here is less important than the margin. Trump won MN-01 by 10 points in 2020. Finstad won it by just four. He did about as well as Trump did in the district’s rural red areas, notes Blake, but his Democratic opponent swamped him in bluer ones. Which suggests liberals turned out in greater numbers than expected.

Bellwether or not?

Normally I’d be happy to write off any single result as an outlier but bear two things in mind. First, Finstad’s surprisingly narrow win is just one data point among several lately showing Democrats more competitive than they were a month ago. We’ve written numerous posts in the last week or two about Dems closing the gap on the generic ballot. Biden’s job approval has also improved from horrific levels to merely terrible ones. He and his party have received a drumbeat of good news on jobs and gas prices, cooling inflation, legislative victories, and even Ayman al-Zawahiri being sent to meet his maker. It’s easy, in other words, to construct a narrative in which Finstad’s margin is less a one-off that’s specific to his district than evidence of a shift nationally driven by higher Democratic enthusiasm. Especially amid a backlash to Roe being overturned.

Which brings us to the other point: This isn’t the only special election in which Democrats have overperformed recently.

In Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District, which held a special election in June, the change was even more pronounced. While Trump won the district by about 15 percentage points in 2020, the Republican congressional candidate, Mike Flood, beat his Democratic opponent, Patty Pansing Brooks, by around six points

David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said falling gas prices, an uptick in Democratic enthusiasm after Roe and GOP candidates being pulled to the far right in their primaries have helped level the playing field. “Overall, Republicans are still clear favorites for the House majority, but they may not be in line for the large gains they expected,” Wasserman said…

Wasserman said Democrats have “made large gains among those who are likeliest to turn out in these low-turnout specials. We wouldn’t have seen these narrow margins before Dobbs. The abortion issue seems durable and is helping them to turn out their voters at more impressive rates than Republicans in these special elections.”

It wasn’t a special election, but if you count the shockingly lopsided victory for pro-choicers in Kansas the week before last then we have three post-Dobbs examples of Dems showing up at the polls in greater numbers than expected:

What happens when two irresistible forces — anger at inflation, anger at the end of abortion on demand — collide in November at the ballot box? How about when a third irresistible force, Republican anger at the DOJ’s interest in Trump, joins the party? One frustrated Republican strategist complained to The Hill this week that the midterms should be a pure up-or-down vote on Biden’s first two years in office and instead the GOP’s pitch is being complicated by surprise developments. “I don’t think the message has been as sharp as it needs to be,” he said. “It’s about drawing a clear contrast. Now, I think there are folks trying to do that. But some of the other stuff — the election denial stuff, abortion — it all kind of muddles the argument.”

Again, maybe the special election results are just flukes. Finstad was badly outspent by his rich opponent in MN-01, for example, which may account for the closer-than-expected final margin. But here’s something to put on your calendar for August: On the 23rd, NY-19 will hold its special election to replace former Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado, who resigned to become lieutenant governor of New York. NY-19 is a true swing district, having gone for Obama in 2012, then for Trump in 2016, then for Biden by two points in 2020. If Democrats end up overperforming there too, I think we’ll start to see some legit bedwetting from GOP strategists about the Roe effect showing up this fall.

Update: Uh oh. Bacon won this district by nearly five points in 2020.

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