Democrats are winning special elections this year. Just not the ones most people are paying attention to.
In a party desperate for victories, Democratic candidates are finding the most success in little-noticed state legislative races. They’ve already won four seats previously under Republican control, some of them in battleground districts that split evenly between President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Party leaders say it’s a sign that they are benefitting from a broad backlash to the Republican president, one that failed to lift a quartet of special election U.S. House candidates — including Jon Ossoff in Georgia or Rob Quist in Montana — to victories of their own.
Especially for a party eager to win back state legislative seats next year, they hope the small races foreshadow big things in the midterm elections.
"Out in the states, we're seeing an incredible over-performance at the state legislative level," said Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
Republicans and even some independent analysts say it’s premature to draw firm conclusions about the national political environment, and they point out that GOP candidates also have won a handful of competitive state legislative races.
These down-ballot races have given activists an outlet for the energy Trump has created.
Carolyn Fiddler, a Daily Kos political editor
But the Democrats do have a relatively successful scorecard. Last week, a Democratic Senate candidate in New Hampshire defeated a Republican by 11 percentage points — 10 points more than Clinton’s margin in that district last year.
That came on top of a pair of victories earlier in July in deep-red Oklahoma, where Democratic candidates won GOP districts in the House and Senate. The party also flipped seats in the New Hampshire state House and New York State general assembly, each also in a district Trump won.
That success, party operatives say, is at least partially because the state legislative candidates are receiving the same boost of energy that has helped Democratic candidates for federal office. In a February race in Delaware for state Senate, for instance, the Democratic nominee had more than 1,000 volunteers.
The candidate went on to win by 17 percentage points.
“That’s unprecedented,” said Post, who said her own group’s online fundraising this year has already tripled what it collected in all of 2015. “We’ve never seen anything like that before.”
It’s the kind of activism Democrats say they rarely see beneath the presidential or congressional level. But in a year when a previously unknown candidate such as Ossoff, running in a special U.S. House election in the Atlanta suburbs, raised tens of millions of dollars, the outpouring of support is reaching all types of races.
“These down-ballot races have given activists an outlet for the energy Trump has created,” said Carolyn Fiddler, a Daily Kos political editor and the liberal website’s senior communications adviser.
No state-level race is going to be a pure referendum on the national climate. Indeed, Democrats themselves are eager to argue that their victories are as much about dissatisfaction with local Republican governance, while GOP operatives involved in the races say Democrats are simply spending more money than they used to.
But even if state-level contests are small, they historically have been predictive of the national environment, said Tim Storey, elections analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The party in control of the White House has lost seats in state legislatures in 27 of the last 29 midterm elections, he said.
“They just as much reflect the party trends as any election,” Storey said. “They do tend to track pretty strongly with the popularity of the president.”
Storey, however, wasn’t sure Democrats should be satisfied that their series of victories this year necessarily means next year will be gangbusters for the party.
“That is a really small sample size to extrapolate much beyond these local races,” he said. “There are quirky factors in all of them, and you just never know until you see a big trend.”
The money is real. The attention is real. We take them at their word that they’re going to play more at the state level.
Matthew Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee
Democrats have vowed to pay more attention to state legislative races after losing hundreds of those seats during President Obama’s tenure. There are signs the party is doing just that six months into Trump’s presidency: The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a high-profile group with the support of former President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder, raised more than $10 million in the second fundraising quarter.
Republicans have taken notice.
“The money is real,” said Matthew Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “The attention is real. We take them at their word that they’re going to play more at the state level.”
But he disputed the notion that Democrats have had all that much success, pointing out that the GOP won a state legislative seat in Louisiana previously held by Democrats while holding a series of their own seats.
“The results they have gotten, based on that financial increase, really are not that impressive,” he said.