How Far Ahead Are Democrats, Really?

Hiral Tipirneni.
Democrat Hiral Tipirneni lost Arizona’s special election by just 5 percentage points. HiralforCongress.com

The good news keeps coming for Democrats, even when they lose. On Tuesday, Democrat Hiral Tipirneni lost Arizona’s special election to Republican Debbie Lesko, but by just 5 percentage points in a district that Donald Trump won by more than 20 less than two years ago. It was the ninth special election for federal office during Trump’s presidency, and the Democratic candidate in all nine has outperformed the partisan lean of their district, by an average in the double digits.

Democrats are celebrating the Arizona margin as another sign that they can retake the House in November. But how far ahead are Democrats, really, a little more than six months out from Election Day? And what will that mean for how many seats they might eventually take?

There are a whopping 147 GOP-held House seats that are less Republican than Arizona’s 8th, according to the Cook Political Report. Democrats can take control of the House by flipping just two dozen of them, a number history suggests should be within reach for a minority party. As of last week, Cook’s nonpartisan handicappers gave Democrats a realistic chance to win 56 GOP-held seats, with another 28 having the potential to become competitive before November.

The Arizona results suggest Democrats might be able to put even more Republican seats in play than previously thought. The 8th Congressional District was rated an R+13 in Cook’s Partisan Voting Index, owing to its heavy concentration of GOP voters, which includes a number of reliably Republican retirees. Tipirneni beat the partisan lean by 20 points according to FiveThirtyEight, which uses a weighted average of recent presidential vote tallies to set expectations. She beat the lean by 31 points according to the New York Times, which used the most recent congressional election in the district as a baseline. (Democrats didn’t even bother to run a candidate in the 8th in the past two cycles, though that also speaks to how surprising Tuesday’s results were.) While those numbers put Tipirneni near the top of the list of performers relative to expectations, she’s hardly an outlier. By FiveThirtyEight’s count, the Democratic candidate outperformed the partisan lean by an average of 17 points in the other seven special elections in GOP-held districts since Trump took office. (Democrats easily defended the only U.S. House seat—in Southern California—that came up during that time.)

The fact that Democrats keep overperforming in districts of all different shapes and sizes should strike fear into the 156 Republicans whose seats are currently considered locks to stay red. As Cook editor David Wasserman conceded as the Arizona results were coming in, “It’s time to start rethinking how many of those are truly safe in November.”

Still, Democrats can have the wind at their backs but still not be able to reclaim the House this November. Thanks to gerrymandering, geographical quirks, and other factors, the GOP has a sizable built-in advantage in the midterms. Some experts, like those at the Brennan Center for Justice, believe that Democrats will need to win the national vote by nearly 11 points to retake control of the House in the midterms. They currently only enjoy a 5.5-point lead in an unweighted running average of the generic ballot, and a 7-point lead in weighted ones.

It’s not entirely clear why those polls diverge so much from the special election results. It’s plausible that the generic ballot will move in the direction of the special election results as November draws near, and voters start paying more attention and pollsters focus more on likely voters. But it’s also possible that once pollsters stop asking about generic candidates and start asking about specific ones, the advantages of incumbency will kick in. According to FairVote, incumbents have outperformed the partisanship of their district by roughly 5 points since 2000.
That number has fallen in recent cycles, but it still stood at 3.2 points in 2016. While the growing list of Republican retirements means many battleground districts won’t have a GOP incumbent, those Congress members who are running will have a built-in advantage—one that the Republicans running in special elections to fill vacant seats didn’t have.

Democrats have also benefited from the fact that the GOP’s special-election candidates have been anything but generic. Roy Moore was credibly accused of being a child sex predator during his Alabama Senate campaign. Greg Gianforte body-slammed a reporter the day before his at-large House election in Montana. Rick Saccone was a forgotten man even in the heat of his Pennsylvania campaign. Trump may be the defining political issue of the moment, but candidates still matter at the local level. While Democrats have had an easier time recruiting this cycle, Republicans will have far more Debbie Leskos on the November ballot than Roy Moores. And all but the most seriously flawed candidates are likely to go unnoticed by a national press corps spread thin trying to cover 100 House races.

You also don’t need to look into the future to see the steep hill Democrats need to overcome in conservative districts this fall. Despite the anti-Trump energy fueling the party, Democrats won only two of the eight federal special elections for GOP-controlled seats since Trump took office: Conor Lamb’s House victory in western Pennsylvania last month and Doug Jones’ Senate stunner in Alabama last December. The party lost the rest, including this week’s election in Arizona and last year’s election in Kansas, both of which saw the Democrat beat recent partisan trends by about 20 points apiece and still come up short. Likewise, Democrats also lost last summer in Georgia, where Karen Handel survived a well-organized challenge in an affluent Atlanta suburb from Democrat Jon Ossoff and last spring in Montana, where Gianforte did his best WWE impression.

Those losses have mostly been forgotten as Democrats posted a pair of recent upset victories, and nearly made it three in a row on Tuesday. National Republicans invested heavily in Lesko to break their losing streak and prove they can still win somewhere this cycle. But the narrative that Democrats are on track for a massive blue wave will be tougher to beat. Democrats, after all, don’t need to win everywhere in November. They just need to win in a few dozen districts that are more hospitable than the one where they nearly pulled off another shocker this week.