Both? Neither? How much do special elections tell us about national elections, anyway? Conor Lamb’s win in PA-18 (assuming a recount or challenge doesn’t overturn it) overcame a heavy GOP registration advantage, but The Hill’s Kristin Tate writes that his success should make Democratic leadership afraid — very afraid:
Lamb appeared to have understood the disconnect between D.C. Democrats and the voters in his district. “I don’t care what the future of the party looks like,” he told The Atlantic in an interview. And in a bold move before election day, he even called for Pelosi to step down from her position as House minority leader. He made purposeful, calculated attempts to distance himself from party leadership, and it paid dividends. His victory underlines Pelosi’s unpopularity with potential Democratic voters. But more than that, it signals to Democrats running in November’s midterms that association with party figureheads may hurt more than it helps. …
Pelosi and Schumer should be worried. They represent everything that American voters in both parties have come to despites: entrenched, life-long bureaucrats who have become completely out-of-touch with everyday Americans. As an increasing number of congressional Democrats realize how toxic the most prominent faces of their party have become, the chorus demanding new leadership will only grow louder.
By far the most important lesson to be learned from the 2016 election is that many voters today want nothing to do with career politicians who no longer fight for their constituents. Lamb’s victory is a reminder that “Drain the Swamp” isn’t just a right-wing rallying cry. It has deep connotations that speak for constituents on both sides of the aisle.
Well, maybe. As I noted earlier and wrote in my column for The Week, the problem with Lamb being a harbinger of Democratic midterm success is that he’s likely to be an outlier. As yourself this: will Democrats run moderates who demand Nancy Pelosi resign and who hail their Second Amendment cred in other races this year, all of whom refuse to criticize Donald Trump? Will they even run one more challenger who follows the Lamb pattern? Not terribly likely, which is why Lamb’s win may not mean much at all seven months down the road. However, that doesn’t mean Democrats need to panic, either, especially not after a win.
Guy Benson argues that it’s Republicans who need to panic:
If double-digit swings toward Democrats had only occurred in one or two of the six House races we’ve seen over the past year, that would be one thing. And it’s certainly true that special elections involve unusual circumstances and can therefore be vastly over-analyzed. But there’s a very strong pattern here, as noted by Ben Shapiro. There have now been seven such elections (Dems seeking to flip GOP seats in Congress) since Trump became president — six in the House and one in the Senate. On average, the pro-Democratic swing in vote percentage (compared to the previous contest over those seats) has been in the teens. That is an inescapable fact. Still not convinced? A data-driven analysis from the Weekly Standard’s electoral statistician delves even deeper …
Underwhelming candidates exist in politics. If there’s a wave brewing, mediocre standard-bearers can benefit from the national climate and win. Less-than-talented figures on the other side are highly vulnerable. As I wrote earlier, candidates matter. They may matter slightly less in an environment that is tilted strongly in one direction, but in close, marginal races, candidate quality is a make-or-break factor.
Democrats were wise to run a young, charismatic military veteran with a moderate platform in this district. In certain respects, Conor Lamb sounded more like a moderate Republican than a modern Democrat. But let’s not pretend he was basically a Righty. He opposes the tax cuts, supports Big Labor, opposes Obamacare repeal, opposes mainstream abortion restrictions (despite his pro-life song and dance), and is strongly opposed to entitlement reform. He’ll be a fairly reliable vote for the Democrats on most issues, even if he was strategic about playing up certain cultural differences.
Put me in the middle. Special elections, I argued in my column, are called “special” for a reason. They happen in a resource and competition vacuum and create outlier turnout models. Lamb won a very narrow election with a soft, moderate tone that would have gotten buried in the stridency of Democratic national campaigning, too.
The resource argument is particularly important:
Special elections allow parties to concentrate all their resources on one contest. In regular elections, it doesn’t work that way. Republicans and Democrats have to compete in 435 House races and 30-some Senate races every second November. They inevitably have to make tough decisions on resource allocations. That’s just not so in one-off special elections.
Heading into November, Republicans have a distinct edge in resources and infrastructure. The party committees dedicated to the Senate and House have remained competitive with each other, but the RNC has outperformed the DNC by a wide margin. The RNC has over $40 million cash-on-hand after setting a new record for off-year donations, while the DNC barely has enough cash (a little over $6 million) to cover its existing debt. The RNC has spent its money on expanding its ground operations in 25 key states for the midterms in a project that goes back to the 2014 cycle. Democrats are still struggling to rebuild the infrastructure that former President Barack Obama cannibalized for his 2012 campaign.
Republicans are coming into this cycle with a large organizational advantage and a lot more cash to operate it. That may not be enough to overcome any drag that Trump’s unpopularity creates, but it reminds us that Democrats may well be unable to match resources in a regular election in the way they did in a special election.
With all of that, though, the resource advantage might only impact races at the margins. Democrats only need to flip 23 House seats now to take control of the lower chamber, and there are plenty of portents about GOP difficulties even without PA-18. The regular Virginia elections last November work far better as a predictive event than a one-off special election, and Republicans got beaten up pretty badly in Virginia. I’d still expect a net loss of 20-30 seats for the GOP, unless Trump gets a lot more popular and/or Democrats really double down on impeachment talk. But PA-18 didn’t change any of that calculation.