Five midterm lessons from this year’s special elections

·7 min read

This year’s special elections have offered a glimpse into how voters may behave in November.

While Republicans saw an early success in a Texas House district, Democrat Pat Ryan’s win in New York on Tuesday was a major boon for the party.

To be sure, special elections are an imperfect indicator. Turnout tends to be lower, political winds can shift quite a bit before November’s midterms and the special elections were held using pre-redistricting maps.

But, taken together, they can provide an early look at the national mood and what political forces the parties will need to contend with.

Here are five lessons from this year’s special elections:

Things may not be as bad for Democrats as once feared

The election outlook for Democrats, particularly in the House, has been bleak for most of the year. Republicans appeared on track to make significant gains in the lower chamber, banking on a poor national environment for President Biden and congressional Democrats, along with the historic advantage a first-term president’s opposing party has during the midterms.

While Democrats are still projected to lose the House, a series of special elections this summer brought a newfound optimism that any “red wave” could be smaller than expected.

The Cook Political Report declared Wednesday that the “Red Wave Looks More Like a Ripple,” while the election handicapper FiveThirtyEight posted the headline “Yes, Special Elections Really Are Signaling A Better-Than-Expected Midterm For Democrats.”

Democrats have outperformed expectations in all four special elections since the Supreme Court struck down federal abortion protections, including Ryan’s win over Republican Marc Molinaro in New York’s 19th District, considered a bellwether for November.

Also on Tuesday, in the Empire State’s 23rd Congressional District, Democrat Max Della Pia came up short against Republican Joe Sempolinski but performed much better than expected in the rural House district.

In Alaska, a state former President Trump carried by 10 points in 2020, Democrat Mary Peltola leads the field for the at-large House seat, though the state’s new ranked-choice voting system means the race has not yet been called.

“We have had a summer of strength, and we’re going to buck history by making history,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last week.

“The other side has had a summer of stumbles, obstructing veterans’ health care, ripping away 50 years of reproductive freedom, and now trying to defund the FBI and ignore a serious threat to our national security with Trump’s latest scandal,” he said. “We’re going to address real problems. We think that’s going to bring it home.”

Abortion could be a galvanizing issue for voters in the general

Political experts and observers were skeptical about the impact the issue of abortion would have on midterm races.

While polls showed that a clear majority of Americans disagreed with the Supreme Court decision, economic issues continuously topped the list of voter concerns and priorities.

A vote on a Kansas ballot measure that would have stripped abortion protections from the state’s constitution was the first sign of the issue’s strength. In a red state, the measure went down by double digits.

But skeptics pointed out that the vote involved a direct yes or no question for voters. It remained unclear whether a candidate could galvanize voters on the issue alone.

The results of the race in New York’s 19th District appeared to answer that question.

Ryan leaned heavily into the issue, while Molinaro messaged on the state of the economy and crime. Ryan rolled out his first television ad of the campaign cycle, which focused on abortion, less than an hour after the Supreme Court announced its decision to strike down protections for the procedure. Since the district is considered a bellwether going into the general, Democrats say Ryan’s victory shows the issue of abortion access could extend beyond their base voters to swing voters.

On top of that, Democrats have improved their standing on the generic ballot since Roe was overturned, going as far as to hold a small lead over the GOP. A Politico-Morning Consult poll released last week showed Democrats with a 4-point lead over Republicans on the generic ballot.

Of course, there could be other external factors at play, and the environment could shift between August and November. However, Democrats are already signaling how confident they’re feeling on the issue.

In the Texas gubernatorial race, Democrat Beto O’Rourke rolled out his first general election ads of the cycle choosing to focus on abortion restrictions in the state.

Suburban voters remain key 

The special elections have shown that suburban voters continue to remain a crucial voting bloc.

The election in New York’s 19th District was a key example. The current district spans the mid-Hudson Valley region and other areas south of Albany. It stretches to the northernmost part of the greater New York metropolitan area.

The suburbs represent an interesting conundrum for both parties this election cycle. While many suburban voters could be considered fiscally conservative and more attracted to Republican candidates on issues of economics, many also say they lean more liberal on social and cultural issues — such as abortion access.

Additionally, experts argue that Trump’s involvement in the midterms, in general, may not help his party’s standing with suburban voters. Suburban voters play an integral role in propelling Democrats to the House majority in 2018, while they also propelled them to the Senate majority and White House in 2020.

Still, suburban voters cover a wide swath of views, and it’s unclear how the results in the 19th District will transfer to other areas. On top of that, Republicans are going to up the ante in terms of making the election more about inflation and Biden rather than abortion and Trump.

Republicans see gains with Latino voters

The GOP has seen significant progress in recruiting both Latino candidates and Latino voters, and that dynamic was on full display in the special election for Texas’s 34th Congressional District.

Republican Mayra Flores defeated Democrat Dan Sanchez by nearly 8 points in the South Texas, majority-Latino district.

While Republicans have made slow but steady progress in the border districts, Flores’s win represented a pretty dramatic shift for the district. Biden won the district by 4.2 points in 2020, while former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won it by 21.5 points in 2016.

Flores’s win came less than two years after Florida Republicans flipped key House seats by winning the Latino vote and after Democrats blamed their losses in Texas on a lack of outreach to Hispanic voters. The GOP aims to continue that trend.

Flores’s win also appears to reflect the success of Republican messaging on inflation, crime and the flow of migrants over the southern border as well as the increased GOP investment in Latino voters.

The National Republican Congressional Committee says it has recruited a total of 102 Hispanic candidates in this cycle, while the Republican National Committee launched an initiative earlier this month that aims to help immigrants prepare for the naturalization test.

While Latino voters are by no means a monolith, the issue of abortion could end up playing well for Republicans in among large swaths of the voting bloc, considering its historically social conservative lean.

Trump, Biden effects unclear

Trump’s effects on the primaries have been clear, but a big question remains: What impact will Trump and Biden have on the midterms?

This year’s special elections do not give a clear answer. According to FiveThirtyEight, Biden currently has a 41.6 approval rating, while Trump clocks in at a 41 percent favorability rating.

While Biden’s approval ratings are still relatively low, a number of down-ballot Democrats, including those who ran in special elections this year, appeared to perform better than expected or win.

Trump does not have great approval ratings either, and Democrats are increasingly looking to tie GOP candidates up and down the ballot to him.

Neither played a major role in the special elections this year, instead opting to focus more on the primaries and the general election.

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