This post, originally published in October, has been updated with yet another special election state legislative win for Democrats, again in Oklahoma.
Here's a stat that's hard to ignore: Democrats have flipped 14 statehouse seats in Republican vs. Democratic special elections across the nation since President Trump got elected, according to data broken down by left-leaning political blog Daily Kos. In many of those states last year, Trump won.
Republicans have flipped zero.
On Tuesday night, Democrats flipped their fourth seat in Oklahoma — of all places — when Democrat Allison Ikley-Freeman defeated a Republican for an open, GOP-held Tulsa-area seat.
Special elections aren't the only places where Democrats are having success right now at the state level. In general elections earlier this month in Virginia, Democrats flipped 15 state House districts and nearly took back control of the chamber, in which Republicans had held a 2-to-1 majority.
To better understand what's going on — and whether this translates to any broader Democratic Party momentum for the 2018 midterm elections — The Fix pinged Carolyn Fiddler, a former Democratic statehouse operative and current political editor for Daily Kos. We spoke by email in October, and our conversation is lightly edited for length and updated with the latest news.
The Fix: What makes these wins so significant for Democrats?
Fiddler: Those Democratic pickups are a significant percentage of the 27 total state and congressional special elections held in Republican seats this cycle — almost 30 percent, actually. If Democrats were to flip 30 percent of Republican-held congressional seats in 2018, the House GOP caucus would lose 72 of its members. Republicans haven't picked up a single seat in a contested Democrat-vs.-Republican special election this year.
Yet even in the seats Democrats aren't picking up, there's good news for team blue. Analysis of these special elections reveals that Democrats are consistently outperforming the presidential elections results from both 2016 and 2012. Democrats have beaten Hillary Clinton’s numbers in 30 of the 39 contested special elections this cycle, and they improved on Obama’s 2012 numbers in 27 of them. Compared to Clinton’s numbers, Democrats are performing an average of 12 percent better, and they’re even performing 9 percent better than Obama did in these same seats.
The Fix: What’s been the most impressive win so far?
Fiddler: That distinction probably goes to another recent Oklahoma flip (there have now been four this cycle!). Oklahoma is a reliably red state, and this house district also had been reliably GOP, consistently sending a Republican to the statehouse since 1995. Democrat Jacob Rosecrants actually lost this seat last fall, 60 to 40 percent. On Sept. 13, he literally flipped the script: Rosecrants won this special election 60 to 40 percent.
The Fix: Your best guess of what’s going on here?
Fiddler: I think a few things are in play. First, Democratic voters are energized and Republican voters seem to be unenthused. Also, recruitment for these seats — like in Virginia's races this fall and even at the congressional level for 2018 — is going incredibly well for Democrats, producing strong candidates who are well-positioned to take advantage of voter enthusiasm. Grass-roots energy is manifesting in dollars and volunteers for these races. The Daily Kos community alone has raised over $245,000 for state legislative candidates already this year. And groups like the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee are making key investments in many of these races, from field to digital to direct contributions.
The Fix: Could it be that Hillary Clinton was just a lackluster candidate, and these Democrats are performing as expected? Flipside of that question: How much can we pin Democrats’ performance on Trump’s unpopularity?
Fiddler: That first argument is definitely not supported by the numbers. Democrats aren't just doing better than Clinton — they're doing better than Obama, too. They've beaten Obama's margin in 27 races so far, nearly as many as they have Clinton's (30). They're also outperforming Obama by an average of 9 percent and Clinton by 12 percent. And considering that Obama's nationwide margin in 2012 was about two points better than Clinton's, those outperformances are nearly identical.
Conversely, Trump's unpopularity can't account for some of the enormous swings against the GOP in so many of these special elections. Trump's net job approval is about minus-15 or so, which is around a dozen points below his “winning” national margin of minus-2 percent last year. That drop can't account for some of the enormous swings we've seen of 20 or 30 points or more in many of these races in dark-red territory.
The Fix: Some of these statehouse races have a few thousand votes cast, and at the congressional level this year, Democrats haven’t won a special election of note. Do Democrats have a problem of scale?
Fiddler: Trump got to handpick the congressional playing field by choosing Cabinet members whose seats were safely red — or were thought to be. Despite that, the Democrat overperformed Trump's numbers by double digits in three of four races, [in Kansas, Montana and South Carolina].
Republicans shouldn't have struggled to hold onto any of these seats, yet they eked out each of these wins by the relative skin of their teeth.
These flaccid Republican congressional performances are an extension of the success Democrats are having at the statehouse level, and the GOP can't afford near-misses in dark-red seats if they want to hold onto the U.S. House in 2018, when they'll be defending a whole lot of much bluer turf.