Democrats win big in New York, come close in Arizona

Special elections in New York and Arizona should leave Republicans nervous about the midterms

By Matthew Rozsa

Published April 25, 2018 9:18AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)
(Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)

Tuesday provided another series of electoral outcomes that bode well for the Democratic Party and are very ominous for their Republican counterparts.

The most notable election Tuesday was the race for an Arizona congressional seat that had been recently vacated by Republican Rep. Trent Franks after a scandal in which he was reported to have repeatedly asked two female staffers working for him to serve as child surrogates. At the most recent count, Republican candidate Debbie Lesko was ahead of Democratic candidate Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, according to CNN.

As CNN pointed out, however, the fact that Lesko is still expected to win doesn't bode well for the Republican Party, considering that she significantly underperformed in that district compared to how GOP candidates normally do:

In a neutral environment, the margin should be much wider. President Donald Trump won the district by 21 percentage points in 2016 and Mitt Romney won it by 25 percentage points in 2012. Combining those outcomes and controlling for how well Democrats did nationally in each of those contests, we can say that Arizona 8 is 25 points more Republican than the nation. Lesko looks like she's going to do about 20 percentage points worse than that.
The result in Arizona 8 fits a pattern so far in special congressional elections this cycle. In every one of the nine so far, Democrats have outperformed the partisan baseline based on the prior two presidential elections.

Trump, of course, took to Twitter to crow about the Republican candidate's victory in that district — and to take a shot at the media.

In a special election race for the New York State Assembly, Democratic nominee Steve Stern managed to defeat his Republican counterpart in a seat that had gone to the Republican candidate in every election since 1978, according to Vox. Perhaps even more ominous for Trump, Stern significantly outperformed the last two Democratic presidential candidates within that district — surpassing Hillary Clinton's 2016 showing by 11 points and Barack Obama's 2012 margin by 15 points.

The outcome of this state legislative race has significant implications for the Republican Party's fortunes in the Donald Trump era. On the one hand, it won't alter the partisan makeup of the New York State Assembly, which is already controlled by the Democratic Party. The bigger election in terms of New York gubernatorial politics was the one for a State Senate race in Winchester County, New York, where Democratic candidate Shelley B. Mayer won an election that — combined with a victory in a special election for a State Senate seat in the Bronx — gave the Democrats a 1-vote majority in the State Senate, according to The New York Times. Though because Democratic State Senator Simcha Felder of Brooklyn continues to caucus with Republicans, the GOP will continue to have a majority in that chamber.

That said, Stern's victory reinforces a trend that has been pervasive since Trump took office in January 2017. As Daily Kos explained in a spreadsheet, Democratic special election candidates surpassed Hillary Clinton's 2016 numbers by an average of 10 points and Barack Obama's 2012 numbers by 7 points in the 70 special elections that were held in 2017. By 2018, those margins had increased to 21 points ahead of Clinton's 2016 numbers and 10 points ahead of Barack Obama's 2012 numbers.

The New York Times elaborated on the long-term electoral implications of this trend:

Multiple forces are behind the swing: Republican voters appear demoralized while Democrats are fired up, and some voters who typically lean Republican have been shifting away from the party.

So far, Republicans have benefited greatly from being able to choose most of the spots they have been forced to compete in. Five of the eight special elections arose because Mr. Trump selected the sitting Republican lawmaker there for a position in his cabinet. (In the other three cases, Republicans resigned from Congress amid scandal or to join the private sector.)

But Mr. Trump’s party will have to compete in dozens of more closely divided districts in November. If Democrats enjoy the same enthusiasm gap in those races, Republicans’ control of the House and Senate could be in jeopardy.

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2018 Midterm Elections Arizona Debbie Lesko Hiral Tipirneni Janet Smitelli New York Steve Stern