The Midterm Electorate Is Locked In

Polls have been improving for Republicans, but their results haven’t.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, left, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, left, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy talk to reporters at the U.S. Capitol on April 17 in Washington.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“A win’s a win,” multiple Republican members of Congress reminded me on Wednesday afternoon, after the party won a frighteningly narrow victory in an Arizona special election on Tuesday night.

Republican Debbie Lesko did indeed win her race against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, a deep-red suburban/exurban district to the northwest of Phoenix.

But it wasn’t a rout. After substantial investment from national Republican groups, Lesko only won by about 5 percentage points. As the New York Times observes, that’s a 31-point drop-off in the margin of victory for the Republican candidate in that district since the 2016 election. That’s not the best metric, since Democrats didn’t even field a candidate against Rep. Trent Franks in 2016, when his main competitor was a member of the Green Party. (Franks, one of the most conservative members of the House, resigned late last year following reports that he approached staffers to serve as surrogates for his children.)

Judged against Donald Trump’s victory in the district in 2016, Lesko’s margin was still a 16-point drop. The numbers align with other special elections over the last few years, where 15- to 30-point decreases in margins, regardless of the type of district, have become the norm.

The Arizona race added a few new troubling signs for Republicans to add to their list of concerns. Unlike Pennsylvania’s 18th District, where Democrat Conor Lamb pulled off an upset last month, there is absolutely zero Democratic DNA in Arizona’s 8th District. Lesko was a fine candidate with enough money. Much of Arizona’s voting is done by mail, through its permanent absentee voter list, so turnout was solid: A few thousand more voters turned out in this 2018 special than did in the 2014 midterm election.

But worse yet, there’s no sign that recent changes in political atmospherics mattered in the result.

As Republicans and conservative media had been proudly touting over the last week, the generic congressional ballot is tighter. As Republicans were voting by mail in Arizona, Democrats’ lead in the RealClearPolitics generic ballot average had fallen to 5.5 percentage points, the narrowest it had been in a year. (Though it’s not an exact science, polling experts consider a 7- or 8-point gap to be the inversion point between Republican and Democratic control of the House.) The president’s job approval has followed a similar trajectory. After spending much of last fall and winter in the 30s, President Trump’s approval has climbed into the low 40s this year—not exactly blowing it out of the water, but decent enough to give Republicans a fighting chance at retaining power.

Even with those improvements, Republicans only narrowly kept control of an R+13 seat designed to be in GOP hands forever, a month after losing an R+11 seat in another high-turnout special election. With the tax law settling into an unpopular equilibrium, after an initial boost in approval after its passage, and President Trump’s approval rating not likely to find a much higher ceiling, is the electorate mostly baked in for November?

“I would say the word ‘baked in’ is probably a good term on both sides,” New York Rep. Chris Collins told me. “The hatred of Trump by a lot of Democrats is baked in. And call it fake news or overt negative coverage of Trump has baked in Trump’s supporters, to where a lot of normal folks just aren’t paying attention anymore.”

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole cautioned that elections for open seats are always narrower than those in which an incumbent is being challenged.

“My seat was carried by 20 points by George Bush in 2000,” Cole, who was elected in 2002, said. “J.C. Watts, who was a superb candidate, carried it that year by 30. Now, when I won it, I carried it by 6 points, very close to what Debbie did last night. And then I haven’t had a serious race since then.”

“Races involving incumbents—and then, remember, the great majority of these races will involve incumbents—are different than open-seat specials,” he said.

Indeed, the “great majority” of Republican seats aren’t in danger. Cole, for example, will comfortably win re-election. Lesko will be running as the incumbent and shouldn’t have much trouble either. But Democrats only need 218 seats to take the majority, not 435. Thirty-seven Republican seats in November will be open, many of them with much narrower partisan divides than that of Arizona’s 8th. That doesn’t even count the scores of Republicans in tight districts that are running for re-election.

There were more headlines Wednesday morning about how the race served as a “wake-up call” for Republicans, but, as Collins put it, GOP members were already “wide awake” before the Arizona results rolled in. They understand how dire the atmosphere is, and they know not to look at fluctuations in both Trump’s approval rating or the generic battle. It’s only April, but the problems are locked in.