Answer: probably not. Special elections have special turnout models that don’t necessarily translate into predictive regular-election turnout indicators, a point to which we’ll return in a moment.
But still, as Punchbowl reports, Democrats got a surprising bragging point last night in New York’s 19th congressional district. The apparent win in an R+3 CD gives them an opportunity for some meaty spin before the kickoff of the general election:
Democrat Pat Ryan beat Republican Marc Molinaro in the special election to replace former Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado in New York’s 19th District. Delgado is now lieutenant governor of New York.
Molinaro – who will be on the ballot in a redrawn district this November against a different Democratic opponent – focused his campaign on bashing President Joe Biden, inflation and crime. Ryan – a 40-year-old West Point grad and Iraq War combat veteran who will be on the ballot in the 18th District this fall – relied heavily on a pro abortion rights message. Ryan repeatedly declared “Choice was on the ballot” throughout the campaign, while also calling for an assault weapons ban.
No poll ever showed Ryan leading, not even the one released by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. A survey published by a progressive group right before the election had Molinaro up by eight points. Both sides poured money into the final stages of this bellwether Hudson Valley race.
With that kind of gap at this stage, a reversal is almost statistically impossible. Molinaro will have to try again in November in the redrawn district and hope that Biden’s unpopular enough in it for his message to resonate. It’s worth noting, though, that Biden won this district in 2020 50/48 even with the R+3 registration advantage, so this may not have been a great test case in the first place for the “red wave” theory.
The Washington Post susses this out as a sign of a Democratic comeback, in part because of superior candidate selection as well as concerns over the end of Roe:
Democratic efforts to reframe the midterms around the debate over abortion gathered steam, with the party winning a special election for U.S. House in an evenly divided Upstate New York district Tuesday, where their candidate made the issue a centerpiece of his campaign.
And in New York and Florida, Democratic primary voters nominated established candidates for governor and Congress in several closely watched intraparty contests, overwhelmingly choosing well-known officeholders aligned with party leadership over rivals who sought to steer the party in a different direction.
Taken together, the results were a welcome sign for Democratic leaders seeking to rally the party base behind its incumbents and find ways to motivate voters to cast ballots against Republicans, who have long felt well-positioned to make big gains in November. Tuesday’s voting came on the heels of Democrats enacting sweeping legislation to fight global warming and bring down the cost of prescription drugs for seniors, among other things, boosting their hopes of averting a red wave in the fall.
It’s possible that these factors will eat into a Republican wave in November. Can we determine that from one special election in a near-even district? Veteran election analyst Dave Wasserman at Cook Political Report casts considerable cold water on that proposition, and notes that the overall special-election score tilts the other way this summer:
House special election results since start of June:#CA22 (6/7, Trump +5): R+24#TX34 (6/14, Biden +4): R+5
——(Dobbs)——-#NE01 (6/28, Trump +11): R+5#MN01 (8/9, Trump +10): R+4#NY19 (8/23, Biden +2): D+2#NY23 (8/23, Trump +11): R+7
— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) August 24, 2022
Even after the Supreme Court published the Dobbs decision, Republicans have won three out of four House races. One can even argue that we should include the Texas and California contests, since the Dobbs decision leaked in early May — and Democrats started messaging on abortion almost immediately. In this particular race, the outcome last night ended up matching the 2020 presidential outcome.
Wasserman also reminds us that turnout is so low in these specials that it’s tough to draw any conclusions from them:
For context: last November, when Rs massively outperformed in NJ/VA, here was the turnout as a % of total 2020 votes cast:
This isn’t to say the enviro hasn’t improved for Dems. It has. But specials can’t tell us extent of improvement w/ the fuller electorate.
— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) August 24, 2022
So what does last night’s surprise win for Democrats tell us, really? It means that Republicans aren’t going to just walk over Democrats without effective messaging and campaigning, even in this midterm environment. The long-reach districts may not be as competitive as the GOP thought, too. But thus far, this special election has been the only real surprise — and it’s actually almost identical to what the district did in 2020, at that. Maybe all this tells us is that House polling in specific districts for special elections stinks … as if we needed a reminder of that.