In the era of Donald Trump, the Democratic Party has been dying for a win. After the crushing defeat in November of last year, Democrats were out of power in the White House, both chambers of Congress, and a supermajority of Governor’s mansions and state legislatures. Since then, the party has suffered loss after heartbreaking loss. The list of lost races feels almost like an obituary: Jon Ossoff in Georgia, Archie Parnell in South Carolina, and Rob Quist in Montana (among others) all came so very close, but ultimately could not pull out wins in what are all admittedly various degrees of Republican-leaning districts. Democrats are, at the national level, feeling more defeated with every close loss. It seems like there is nothing the party can do to make gains at the national level. However, not all hope is lost. If one looks at the state level, there is a glimmer of hope for the Democratic Party.
Over President Obama’s eight years in office, Democrats lost nearly 1,000 seats in state legislatures. This was the most seats lost at the state level under any president, crippling the Democratic Party’s bench and allowing Republicans to gerrymander their way into a seemingly impenetrable majority in the House of Representatives. To make matters worse, state legislative elections are happening every year, not just when a presidential race is going on: Democrats are historically bad at turning out for elections not involving the presidency. Despite these past trends and the historic disadvantages the Democrats are facing, there are signs that Democrats are finally starting to pay attention to non-presidential elections. Since November 8th, Democrats have flipped eight seats at the state level. Of the special elections held since Donald Trump won the 2016 election, a grand total of zero new seats have been won by Republicans. These numbers may seem to suggest that the Republican Party was overextended at the state level: maybe Republicans had won seats that generally favor Democrats, and these elections were the return to a more realistic balance in the legislatures. However, upon looking further into these elections, this proves to be untrue.
One of the most recent seats to flip was HD-Rockingham-4, in New Hampshire. This is a seat that broke for Trump by a 23-point margin and for Romney by a 21-point margin in 2012, but in this race the Democrat prevailed by two points. However, New Hampshire is a notoriously swingy state, so even in a historically Republican area, things can turn on a dime. That may be the case if this was an isolated election (and not in an off-off year). However, three of the eight Democratic flips in 2017 so far have been in New Hampshire, all in strong and historically Republican areas (one district, centered around the town of Wolfeboro, had not elected a Democratic representative in over 100 years and is the location of a Mitt Romney-owned vacation home). Even with this in mind, New Hampshire is a state that prides itself on its political independence and unpredictability, so had the special election victories stopped there, this could have been written off as simply more New Hampshire “swinging”.
Unfortunately for the Grand Ole Party, it doesn’t stop there. Oklahoma is among the most conservative states in the country. It is primarily white, rural, and Christian, and has major connections to the agricultural sector and the fossil fuel industry, both of which are generally conservative. It gave President Trump over 65 percent of the vote, and down-ballot at all levels the margin just gets even more Republican. One wouldn’t expect then that ruby-red Oklahoma has seen the same number of legislative seats flip to Democrats as the loose-cannon of a state that is New Hampshire so far, but it’s true. Oklahoma Democrats have flipped three seats in the Oklahoma legislature in 2017. Incredibly, one of these races was an exact mirror of the 2016 race: in 2016, the Republican won 60-40. In 2017, the Democrat won 60-40.
However, the Democrats still haven’t been able to win a Congressional special election, and many state level special elections have not flipped. Taking this shallow approach makes it seem as if these victories are not a big deal and are simply Democrats desperate for something to rally behind. However, upon taking a closer look at 2017’s special elections holistically, a different image comes into focus. Some elections had special circumstances: the most recent Democratic flip, Florida’s 40th Senate District, was hit hard by Hurricane Irma two weeks before the date of the special election, which deflated turnout (a plague normally felt heavier by the Democratic candidate, who nevertheless emerged the winner). The turnout in these special elections has been much lower than the presidential election, but incredibly it has been Republicans who are either staying home or switching their vote to the Democrats. Democrats are outperforming Clinton, Obama, and previous candidates who ran for the same seats by incredible margins.
Perhaps the Democratic Party finally understands it needs to invest in races everywhere and at every level in order to rebuild its power. Maybe the fact that a Republican is in the White House is dragging other Republicans down, particularly because this new Trumpian brand of Republicanism is vastly different from what voters are used to. Maybe each election simply had individual circumstances that proved advantageous for Democrats. Or perhaps the reason for this success is something much more ominous for the Republican Party: maybe there is a rising commitment by Democratic voters to show up to every election. Maybe the election of Donald Trump awakened a new wave of Democratic activism and participation, with the dedication and willingness to go into Republican turf and compete in every race at every level. This newfound energy, combined with Donald Trump’s historic unpopularity, should terrify the GOP. A coalition of fired-up Democrats, anti-Trump independents, and disenchanted moderate Republicans (particularly those in the suburbs, which have historically voted Republican but are now trending away from the GOP) supporting Democrats combined with the potential for a continuation in the drop of Republican election turnout could spell disaster for the Republicans chances at maintaining their hold on power. But of course, we won’t know for sure until the next election.