The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Encouraging signs for Democrats in first 2023 elections

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jennifer McClellan speak with media after voting in a special election primary on Dec. 20. (Ryan M. Kelly for The Washington Post)
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The first bona fide signs that Democrats might defy historical odds in the 2022 election came via special elections. While Republicans had been over-performing in such races earlier in the year, that turned on a dime after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and Democrats started beating the fundamentals. And while we were unsure whether the bump would last into November, it turned out the data didn’t lie.

Well, now we’ve got some data from early in the 2023 elections, and the numbers continue to look good for Democrats.

Four states held special elections or primaries on Tuesday, and all four were encouraging for Democrats:

  • A much-watched primary for a crucial Wisconsin Supreme Court seat was technically nonpartisan, but featured two candidates clearly more aligned with the left and two competing to be the conservative candidate. The left-leaning candidates combined for 54 percent, while the right-leaning ones combined for 46 percent; the field is now narrowed to two candidates, one left-leaning and one right-leaning. (This is in a state that has been decided by less than a percentage point in the last two presidential elections, and where the first round in a 2020 state Supreme Court race was very close.) Also, the de facto Democratic nominee, Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz, is currently taking slightly more of the vote than the two GOP-aligned candidates together.
  • In the special election for Virginia’s 4th Congressional District, Democrat Jennifer McClellan is currently winning by 49 points in a district President Biden won by 36 points in 2020. Compare that margin to those of the late Democratic incumbent Rep. Donald McEachin in 2022 (30 points) and the party’s 2021 gubernatorial nominee (who carried the district by 13 points).
  • In a Kentucky race, Democratic state Senate candidate Cassie Chambers Armstrong won by 54 points in a district Biden carried by 30, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.
  • And in New Hampshire, Democrats held on to a key state House seat in the closely divided chamber, winning by 11 points in a race that was literally tied on Election Day 2022. (The state reran the election after each candidate emerged with the same number of votes.)

The results come on top of a trio of Pennsylvania state House special elections earlier this month in which Democrats significantly over-performed in the 2020 presidential election results. That Democrats won the seats wasn’t surprising — the closest district favored Biden by 16 points in 2020 — but Democrats exceeded those 2020 margins by 14, 24, and 33 points with control of the chamber at stake.

There was also a state Senate race in Pennsylvania the week before that echoed the 2020 election results. But all told, these off-year elections are clearly tilting Democratic in a way that harks back to late in the 2022 election cycle. (Back then, some races were close to the 2020 baselines, while others showed a significant, in some cases even a low-double-digit, Democratic overperformance.) It’s mostly happening in areas that already lean Democratic, but Wisconsin and New Hampshire were both competitive electorates.

Over-performances often exaggerate a party’s momentum, because the swings tend to be bigger when turnout is lower. But which party is over-performing in such races tends to be a pretty good predictor of which party is ascendant, especially when you have multiple high-profile and/or federal races.

And come April 4, when Wisconsin holds the general election for the state Supreme Court seat — a race that is expected to be hugely expensive and draw lots of national attention given all that’s at stake, including on abortion rights — we’ll have yet more data.