Why Moral Victories Matter in Special Elections

I can guarantee you that any Democrat who claims a “moral victory” in any of the special elections that have happened this year will be drowned out with claims that winning is all that matters. There is some truth in that. As in most competitions, coming in second doesn’t count for much.

But special elections don’t matter all that much in and of themselves. The reason they garner so much attention is because they are seen as harbingers of what is to come in midterm and general elections. Beyond winning, it is important to keep that in mind when analyzing the results.

So what can we learn from the special elections in Georgia and South Carolina yesterday, combined with what happened in Kansas and Montana earlier this year?

The first thing to keep in mind is the reason there was a special election in the first place. All of these seats opened up because the representative was chosen by Donald Trump to serve in his administration. In other words, they were previously held by Ray Zinke, Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney and Tom Price. That makes all of these districts solid red in their leanings. Here’s a look at the history in Georgia’s 6th:

We can now fill in that last number. Karen Handel won by 4 percent. A lot of people will point to the fact that Ossoff performed worse that Clinton in the presidential race, where Trump won the district 48-47. But that is the point. In 2012, Obama lost this same district by 23 points. Donald Trump and the Republicans are hemorrhaging support in a district that not only elected Tom Price, but Newt Gingrich for years. Looking at the forest instead of the trees tells us that doesn’t portend well for them. Here is how David Wasserman captured that when it comes to all four special elections this year:

From the Cook Political Report, “PVI measures how each district performs at the presidential level compared to the nation as a whole.” On average, these four Democrats outperformed their district’s PVI by 8 points. That’s huge. A trend like that could put a lot of Republican congressional seats in play.

Because these elections all happened in deeply red districts, several people on Twitter last night were comparing Democratic losses to what happened to Republicans in 2009.

Six out of seven of those special elections were held because the incumbent was chosen to be part of the Obama administration—the same scenario we’re experiencing now, only in reverse. At least one GOP operative was not ready to celebrate yet.

That is as good of an example as you’ll find for why, when trying to gauge what special elections portend for midterms, it is important to consider the moral victories.

Finally, in applying any lessons from these special elections to the 2018 midterms or 2020 presidential election, there is the unpredictable. John Harwood captured that:

We don’t know what might happen over the next year or three years. I doubt you’ll find a Democrat who assumes that the policies of Trump and the Republicans will fare very well. So things aren’t likely to swing in their direction. But it is very possible that both domestically and abroad, the situation will get worse. I’m not happy being a doomsayer, but that is simply the reality we’re living in right now.

Does that mean that Republicans will pay a price in 2018 or 2020? If we’re extrapolating to those elections from the four we’ve witnessed so far this year, that is the unknown. But it is a safe bet to assume that whatever happens won’t be good news for Republicans.

Update: David Wasserman added this commentary to his tweet up above:

If Democrats were to outperform their “generic” share by eight points across the board in November 2018, they would pick up 80 seats. Of course, that won’t happen because Republican incumbents will be tougher to dislodge than special election nominees. But these results fit a pattern that should still worry GOP incumbents everywhere…

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .