By Todd Carney for RealClearPublicAffairs
Many are ready to frame California governor Gavin Newsom’s decisive win in a race that seemed like a toss-up a month ago as a major boost for Democrats in 2022. In theory, this might make sense, but over the last decade, special and off-cycle election lead-ups to midterms have proved misleading as to which party would fare best.
Consider the lead up to the 2010 midterms: Republican Bob McDonnell’s landslide win in Virginia, Republican Chris Christie’s victory in deep blue New Jersey, and Republican Scott Brown’s shock win to replace late Democratic stalwart Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts.
Conventional wisdom held that the ability of Republicans to win in blue states like Jersey and Massachusetts, and a landslide win in a purple state like Virginia, augured for a Republican “shellacking” of Democrats in 2010.
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But other races that cycle did not have such rosy results for Republicans. In 2009, Democrats won two congressional special elections in New York in districts where Republicans maintained voter registration advantages – including one in which a Republican was the incumbent.
The New York Times declared the loss a “blow to the right.”
The next year, just months before the 2010 midterms, Democrats’ held onto a contested House seat in Pennsylvania, leading CNN to cite the win as evidence that the political map for 2010 was “murky.” Nate Silver noted that the election meant Republicans’ plan to nationalize the U.S. House race might fail.
E. J. Dionne thought the race indicated Democrats could win in 2010. They didn’t, of course: Democrats lost 63 House seats and six Senate seats in 2010.
The next midterm election had similar instances in the lead-up. In 2013, though Christie won a landslide reelection, Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost the Virginia gubernatorial election, marking the first time since 1973 that the out-of-power party did not win that state’s governor’s race.
The voters were sending “mixed messages,” the Wall Street Journal said. The Guardian called the loss a “blow to Republicans.”
Also in 2013, Republicans lost in two of the instrumental states of the 2010 cycle: Massachusetts and New Jersey. In June, Republican Gabriel Gomez also lost by 10 points to Democrat Ed Markey. And while Christie won big in New Jersey, weeks before his election, Republican Steve Lonegan lost to Democrat Cory Booker by 10 points.
No one saw either of these seats as must-win elections for Republicans, unlike the congressional races from the 2010 cycle or the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election. Yet weeks before the Massachusetts Senate election, Cook Political Report rated the race a toss-up.
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Despite Republicans’ failure to win these two seats, however, they went on to win nine Senate seats in 2014. So, if the partisan nature of Jersey and Massachusetts could explain why their two Senate elections were not predictive of 2014, the same explanation could apply as well to the California recall.
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In the lead-up to 2018, Democrats scored impressive wins in the Alabama Senate election in 2017 and in the 2018 House race in Pennsylvania, where Democrat Conor Lamb won in a heavily Republican district. Additionally, Democrats won both the New Jersey and Virginia governorships in 2017.
But Democrats did not dominate every competitive race in the lead-up. In May 2017, Republicans won a special election for Montana’s sole House seat. Montana is deep red, so Republicans’ victory there may not have seemed surprising, but six months earlier the Democrats had won the state governorship, beating Greg Gianforte.
Additionally, a day before the congressional special election, Gianforte, who was running as the Republican candidate, faced an assault charge for body-slamming a reporter. This scandal made it appear that Democrats had a solid chance of winning the seat. But Gianforte prevailed.
In June 2017, Democrats lost a special congressional election in Georgia. Trump had won this district by only 1.5 points, so it looked like a key pick-up opportunity for Democrats. “Our Brand Is Worse Than Trump,” Democrats lamented afterward in the New York Times.
In the 2018 midterms, however, Democrats picked up 41 House seats, including the Georgia House seat that they had lost the year before. Democrats did not win Montana’s at-large congressional seat, but Democratic Montana senator Jon Tester won reelection in 2018.
Democrats’ arguably biggest prize in the lead-up to 2018 was the Alabama Senate seat; still, Republicans increased their Senate majority by two seats.
Some might argue that these adverse election results in the lead-up to elections came with caveats. In one of the 2009 New York special elections, for instance, Republicans squabbled with a third-party candidate who contributed to the defeat of their candidate.
In Virginia in 2013, Cuccinelli proved too conservative for a purple state that had gone twice for Barack Obama.
But California’s recall election had some of these same factors. Republicans faced internal conflicts due to the large number of candidates running. Additionally, Newsom seized on how out of the mainstream Larry Elder seemed for the state.
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Does all this mean that we should ignore special election results? No. In the lead-up to the midterms over the last decade, the victorious party has had some key wins. But midterm elections are shaped by many variables as important as special-election results.
In the case of 2022, these include President Biden’s approval ratings, national economic numbers, which party controls redistricting, and the quality of the candidates. With Biden’s problems over Afghanistan, rising inflation, and Republicans’ edge in redistricting, the GOP looks to have an advantage at the moment.
But a lot can happen in 14 months.
Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.
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