The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats show momentum coming out of special elections

Democratic congressional candidate Pat Ryan addresses a rally in Kingston, N.Y., on Aug. 13, 2022. (Cindy Schultz for The Washington Post)
6 min

The state of play suggests Democrats should lose at least one chamber of Congress and probably both. That’s when you consider the narrowness of their majorities (fewer than 10 seats in the House and a 50-50 Senate), President Biden’s dim political fortunes and the history of the party opposite the White House very often gaining ground in midterm elections.

It still might happen, but multiple special elections have given Democrats increasing license to believe they can beat the fundamentals.

Democrats again overperformed the 2020 presidential election results in a pair of special elections in New York on Tuesday. That means they’ve now overperformed 2020 in all four special elections decided since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

And that’s not including a fifth special election last week in Alaska, where votes are still being tallied and Democrats have a real shot at picking off a statewide seat where voters favored Donald Trump by 10 points.

Any single race — even a few races — can provide a misleading picture, and we often oversell the results of an individual special election. But special elections are one of the best indicators we have of the current political environment, because they involve actual voters showing up to cast actual ballots. What’s more, the 2022 election cycle has given us an inordinate number of late special elections from which to glean clues.

And the picture across these races is pretty consistent in some key ways. It involves Democrats overperforming Biden’s 2020 numbers by a handful of percentage points and doing so thanks to turnout in more-Democratic-leaning areas.

First, the shifts:

  • In Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District in late June, a 15-point Biden loss was shrunk to a five-point Democratic loss — a gain of 10 points.
  • In Minnesota’s 1st District this month, a 10-point Biden loss became a four-point Democratic loss — a gain of six points.
  • In New York’s 19th on Tuesday, a 1.5-point Biden win stretched modestly to 2.2 points, as the results stand.
  • In New York’s 23rd on Tuesday, an 11-point Biden loss will shrink, with the Democrat currently trailing by 6.6 points — a gain of more than four points.

In these four races, Democrats are overperforming 2020 by an average of more than five points, and that’s compared with an election in which they won the presidency and held on to the House. It’s certainly very unlikely the party would overperform that much in November, especially with the “generic ballot” showing voters pretty evenly split between the two parties. But for Democrats staring down the barrel of a tough election, these are encouraging signs.

Especially when you dig a little deeper.

Tuesday’s marquee race was in New York’s 19th, in large part because it’s such a closely divided district for which both parties actually fought — unlike with most other special elections we’ve analyzed this election cycle. Republicans had high hopes to pick off a district that Biden carried narrowly, with their candidate, Marc Molinaro, leading in every public poll.

The race turned out quite differently, with Democrat Pat Ryan leading by 51.1 percent to 48.9 percent with about 94 percent of expected votes counted.

The reason: Voters turned out at higher rates in the most Democratic-leaning counties.

MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki even calculated that, if relative turnout in each of the district’s counties were the same as in 2020, the current election results show Republicans would have won by very a narrow margin.

Something similar happened in Nebraska and Minnesota, as The Post’s Colby Itkowitz and Lenny Bronner summarized a couple weeks back. Effectively, Democrats overperformed in the biggest and most Democratic-leaning precincts, suggesting they more effectively turned out their base.

We don’t yet have precinct-level data to figure out whether these trends held in New York, but the county-level data suggests that this did, to borrow that tired phrase, come down to turnout.

(Whether any of these trends hold in Alaska is difficult to say, given that the results there aren’t final and that the state has an unusual, ranked-choice system. Democrat Mary Peltola leads on voters’ first choices, with 39 percent, while Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich are combining for nearly 6 in 10 votes. But the race is likely to be reduced to Peltola and Palin, at which point Peltola could pick off enough of Begich’s second-choice voters to win. And it’s very likely she’ll at least overperform Biden’s 10-point deficit from 2020.)

It’s all a starkly different picture from the last special election held before the Supreme Court overturned Roe, when Republican Mayra Flores in mid-June picked off a South Texas seat previously held by Democrats.

As we noted at the time, Democrats didn’t really fight for the district because it was effectively eliminated for the 2022 general election by redistricting, and South Texas has been something of a political wild card of late. But at the very least, it was a good sign for the GOP — especially given that Republicans also overperformed in a special election in California the week before (albeit for another district that will effectively cease to exist). Since then, the good signs in special elections have all been on the Democratic side.

And that can be instructive. As we wrote a couple of weeks back, with some exceptions, late special elections do generally tell us something about which party is up and which party is down. And that’s with considerably fewer special elections to evaluate. The seven we’ve seen since the start of June of the election year appears to be an unprecedented number. And along with a narrowing of the generic ballot, which Republicans have led for most of 2022, they show Democrats have, at the very least, punctured Republicans’ midterm momentum.

We shouldn’t expect Democrats’ turnout edge to be the same in November, when more casual voters are more likely to show up. Indeed, the fact that New York’s 19th showed less of a Democratic overperformance than the other special elections is instructive, because it featured higher turnout thanks to how contested it was. And the battle for both chambers is close enough that Republicans don’t need a wave election; they just need a modestly good one.

But unlike even three months ago, we’ve now got significant reason to doubt they’ll necessarily get one.