This Year’s Legislative Special Elections Could Have Big Implications for November

While the media follows the dysfunction in the Trump White House, the biggest story of the year in the electoral world is the Democrats’ performance in state legislative contests across the country. Since January six Republican state legislative seats have flipped, each with its own story but a consistent theme—Democrats are over-performing. In all six contests the winning Democrat exceeded the NCEC’s Democratic Performance Index, and outpaced Hillary Clinton’s major-party percentage. More important than the statistics is that at first blush, these districts would be considered outside the “goldilocks zone.” Each has geographical or educational characteristics that warrant skepticism. The question remains—does this translate into a coming wave in 2018?

State District DPI Hillary Clinton 2016 % % With Bachelor’s Degree + Special election Dem. 2018 % Turnout
CT HD 120 50.0% 51.1% 34.3% 51.0% 3,167
FL HD 72 49.2% 47.5% 32.8% 53.8% 44,236
KY HD 49 40.7% 24.3% 12.1% 68.4% 4,927
MO HD 97 44.8% 34.8% 23.6% 51.5% 3,467
NH Belknap 3 45.2% 43.4% 24.7% 53.5% 1,809
WI SD 10 42.4% 40.7% 28.0% 54.6% 22,434

Realistically, only two of the contests—in Wisconsin and Florida—produced a high enough turnout to yield confidence in the trend. But taking these districts as a group, some interesting factors are worth exploring. Much has been made of the importance of education level in determining Democratic targets, but none of these six districts had a higher education level above 34 percent—near the national mean—according to the most recent figures. In fact, in four of these districts the educational attainment was far below the national mean.

Here is a summary of what we distill from each winning effort and implications for the November 2018 election:

State District Special election Dem. 2018 % … vs. DPI … vs. Hillary
Clinton 2016 %
… vs. Barack
Obama 2012 %
CT HD 120 51.0% +1.0% -0.1% -2.0%
FL HD 72 53.8% +4.6% +6.2% +4.5%
KY HD 49 68.4% +27.7% +44.1% +35.4%
MO HD 97 51.5% +6.7% +16.6% +43.4%
NH Belknap 3 53.5% +8.3% +10.1% +3.0%
WI SD 10 54.6% +12.2% +13.8% +8.4%

So What Do These Contests Mean?


District Type: Suburban (Fairfield County)

Impact: Contrary to the other districts, this result may portend a difficult election for Democrats in Connecticut, in part due to the unpopularity of the Malloy administration. The Connecticut General Assembly is a battleground for Democrats this year, with defense as important as offense in the November general election. This district is not as affluent or highly educated as other suburban districts, but still indicates a slightly disturbing trend in Connecticut.


District Type: Suburban (Sarasota County)

Impact: Although a marginal Democratic district, it typically tilts Republican. This result is encouraging in a state that has a high profile U.S. Senate race and several potentially competitive U. S. House races this fall. The high special election turnout makes this result more indicative of a trend.


District Type: Rural

Impact: This victory was the result of a political scandal, and a late decision to hold a special election. The result this fall will be interesting to watch.


District Type: Rural

Impact: This result, when coupled with the three additional near misses in Missouri demonstrates that the Republican supermajority in the legislature is in jeopardy. It’s also another signal that midwestern rural and small town districts may be more competitive than previously thought.


District Type: Rural

Impact: New Hampshire’s House districts are small with regard to population, so the low turnout is less meaningful. This chamber typically changes hands when a moderate wave is present. The November general election should be no different.


District Type: Rural

Impact: If rural voters are returning to the Democratic fold, the Republican majority in the Wisconsin state senate is in serious jeopardy. If what we’ve seen in this election extends beyond this contest, many midwestern rural districts may be competitive.