President Trump’s post-special-election bravado used to have a consistent form. He would reject the idea that his party was in trouble by noting that, in the special elections held after the 2016 presidential race, his party was batting a thousand. Sure, that meant ignoring the results of the special election in California’s 34th Congressional District, where a Republican didn’t even make the runoff. And his proclamations that his party was 4- or 5-and-0 meant ignoring the U.S. Senate loss in Alabama after Roy Moore’s past caught up with him.
All of that was ruined when the Democrats won the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th House District last month. No longer was there a neat line that Trump could tout to put a positive gloss on things. So, when Republicans won the special election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District on Tuesday, Trump’s response was more muted.
Gone were the proclamations that it was the Republicans who were seeing a building wave. Gone was the bragging about how the Democrats weren’t getting the job done. There’s still time for follow-up tweets, of course, but for now, a subdued “congratulations” is all the winning Republican got from Trump.
Why? Because even though the Republicans won, Tuesday night was another bad night for the party.
Let’s first note that, excluding the California district, the special House elections have taken place on favorable ground for the Republicans. In some cases, that’s because the elections were held to replace people elevated into the Trump administration. In others, it’s because of resignations. Regardless, the elections have been held in districts that backed Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 by an average of about 19 points, according to analysis from DailyKos. The Cook Political Report Partisan Voting Index score, a measure of partisanship based on the results of the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, gave the Republicans an average 13-point advantage in the districts.
These were places the Republicans were generally supposed to win — just as the Democrats were supposed to win in California. The special election districts are the large red dots on the graph below.
With the primary exception of that district in Utah, the results of those special elections have been uniformly positive for the Democrats, even if the party didn’t win the seats. On average the Democrats did 11 points better in the districts than Trump did in 2016.
That Utah exception is a function of Trump, too. No red state shifted more to the left relative to 2012 than Utah, a function of skepticism about his candidacy (and Mitt Romney leading the ticket six years ago). A non-Trump Republican would be expected to do better in Utah than did Trump.
The shifts relative to the Cook PVI are more uniform. On average, the Democrats did five points better than the districts’ PVI scores would suggest; excluding the Utah seat, the shift was seven points on average.
To put a fine point on it, here are the combined shifts relative to 2016 and PVI.
The shift in Arizona’s 8th District, incidentally, came despite there not being any of the asterisks that have applied to past Republican wins. This was an election without a Roy Moore scandal or a matchup that favored the Democratic candidate as in Pennsylvania. This also wasn’t a low-turnout election that amplified the Democratic enthusiasm advantage.
Sure, some will say, but the Democrats still lost. Which is true. But these are districts that the Republicans should have won easily, and all of them except Utah were single-digit wins (or a loss). It’s like a subpar football team scrimmaging against the Super Bowl winners and discovering that they’re suddenly able to get within 7 to 10 points. That may not mean they’re going to win every game the next year, but it suggests that they are going to do better than they had in the past during a season in which they’re playing a mix of good and bad teams.
The real issues for the Republicans are the districts below. If the shifts in special elections shown on the graph above are the norm in House races, how can the Republicans expect to hold onto all of these seats, much less most of them?