The circumstances surrounding Kentucky’s state House special election yesterday were rather tragic. Former Rep. Dan Johnson (R), facing allegations he molested a teenaged girl, committed suicide in December.
Republicans were nevertheless optimistic about keeping the seat “red.” After all, this is a district Mitt Romney carried by 33 points in 2012, and which Donald Trump won by 49 points in 2016. The result was practically a foregone conclusion.
At least it was right up until the Democratic candidate won last night.
The Democratic Party’s run of good news in state legislative races continued Tuesday night, with a former legislator beaten in the 2016 Republican wave reclaiming a seat held briefly by a pastor who committed suicide after being accused of molesting a teenage girl.
Linda Belcher, a Democrat first elected in 2008, won the special election for Kentucky’s 49th District with 68.45 percent of the vote.
In other words, Belcher didn’t just win in this Kentucky district yesterday; she won easily.
Context, of course, is everything, and it’s worth emphasizing that Belcher was an established figure in the community, having previously held this legislative seat. That said, in the special election, the Kentucky Dem easily outperformed her previous results.
And then there’s the larger trend to consider. Democratic candidates have now flipped 37 districts from “red” to “blue” since Donald Trump took office. What’s more, as Vox explained, “According to an extremely useful comprehensive spreadsheet compiled by Daily Kos, across 70 special elections in 2017, Democrats ran 10 points ahead of Clinton and 7 points ahead of Obama’s 2012 results. Those numbers have accelerated into 2018. Across 14 races, Democrats are running 28 points ahead of Clinton and 14 points ahead of Barack Obama.”
Will Dems be able to keep that up through the midterm elections in the fall? Almost certainly not – because turnout models for special elections tend to be quite different from cyclical general elections. That said, Democrats don’t need to run 28 points ahead of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance to do well in the midterms.
As we discussed just last week, after a Dem flipped a “red” state legislative district in Florida, the typical response from GOP partisans is to focus on the congressional special elections, where Republican candidates have had far more success this year.
It’s a fair point, but I’m still inclined to disagree. There have been five U.S. House special elections so far this year, and Republicans have won four of them (Trump has repeatedly said the GOP went “five for five,” but that’s demonstrably wrong.) And while losing is certainly worse than winning for a party, I continue to take a different lesson from those four races: in each of these contests, Democrats ran first-time candidates in ruby-red districts, and in every instance, these Dems exceeded expectations and forced Republicans to scramble to secure narrow victories.
And then, of course, there was a certain U.S. Senate special election in Alabama, which didn’t exactly go Republicans’ way.
Add this to the 37 state legislative seats in the Trump era that Democrats have flipped from red to blue, and the emerging picture is one that should leave GOP officials feeling pretty anxious.