What the 115th Congress’ Special Elections Say About the 2018 Midterms

On March 13, 2018, Democratic candidate Conor Lamb won a special election that earned him a House seat representing Pennsylvania’s 18th district, a heavily Republican area of the state that overwhelmingly voted for President Trump in 2016. Lamb’s victory comes on the heels of Democrat Doug Jones’s narrow victory in an Alabama Senate race to replace the seat vacated by current Attorney General Jeff Sessions in December 2017. Like western Pennsylvania, the state of Alabama is historically a Republican stronghold. Jones is the first Democratic Senator to hail from Alabama since 1994, when incumbent senior Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party. 

Democrats are interpreting these victories—along with several other Democratic victories in various special elections for state legislatures—as  a good omen  for the upcoming midterm elections, which will take place on Tuesday, November 6, 2018. After the Alabama special election results were announced, data journalist Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight declared, “special elections so far point to a Democratic wave in 2018.” Jones’s and Lamb’s victories have helped shift the balance of power in Congress toward—though not to—the Democrats. At the beginning of the 115th Congress, created on January 3, 2017, Democrats held 194 House seats to the Republicans’ 241, and 48 Senate seats to the GOP’s 52. By March 2018, Democrats held 196 House seats compared to the Republicans’ 239, and 47 Senate seats compared to the GOP’s 51. However, the party gap in the Senate is even smaller than it may initially seem, as two independents caucus with the Democrats.  Yet despite buzz around several special Congressional elections—such as Georgia’s 6th district in June 2017, where Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff narrowly lost to Republican candidate Karen Handel— and Jones are the only two special-election candidates who have managed to flip previously Republican seats for national office. 

The Democrats will likely remain the minority party in both the Senate and the House for the rest of the 115th Congress; however, they hope to emerge as the majority party in the 2018 midterm elections. This election cycle presents a challenging map for Democrats in the Senate. According to a New York Times analysis, the Democrats need to win 28 seats to control the Senate, compared to the 9 seats that the Republicans need. These difficult odds are compounded given the state-by-state context of each individual race. By chance, there are significantly more Democrats up for re-election in the 2018 midterms than Republicans. This means that the Democrats have to focus not only on keeping 12 of the 26 seats up for re-election that aren’t “solidly Democratic,” but must also campaign in Republican territory to flip at least two seats. And even if Democrats pull off winning a whopping 28 seats out of the 35 seats up for election, they will be left with only a slight 51-49 majority. As Jasmine Lee and Alicia Parlapiano of The New York Times conclude, “It is numerically possible, but there is little room for error.” 

Others are not so sure that Democrats can win in November without a change in strategy. Many have been quick to note that special circumstances surrounded both Lamb’s and Jones’ victories. Current Senator Doug Jones ran against Republican Roy Moore, an accused sexual predator who preyed upon young women and girls. Despite multiple allegations of sexual assault, Moore still received 48.3% of the vote and the endorsement of the President of the United States. Jones’s victory is widely credited to large African-American voter turnout, especially among African-American women, who were especially outraged by Roy Moore’s sexual misconduct and ties to white supremacy. 

Peyton Ayers

Peyton Ayers

The uniqueness of Lamb’s election did not lie so much in his opponent—the barely-noted Republican Rick Saccone—as in his own opinions which sometimes strayed from Democratic orthodoxy. Lamb served as a Marine and hinted that he owns guns. Although he strongly supports background checks and mental health screenings for new gun owners, he does not support banning certain firearms such as the AR-15. He is also a former federal prosecutor who was tough on crime and believes “life begins at conception,” but respects women’s right to choose. Lamb’s conservative leanings likely appealed to Trump supporters in western Pennsylvania without offending most mainstream Democrats (although some progressives have taken issue with his middle-of-the-road stances). However, many seem to think that Lamb’s success is a result of his specific situation rather than a nationally applicable strategy. As the Brookings Institution notes, Conor Lamb was nominated internally through Pennsylvania Democratic Party leadership, not through a primary as is usual.  Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution thus suggests that the Democratic Party’s strategic selection of Lamb may have also contributed to his win. 

However, an increased number of young people—like Lamb—running for office across the country seem to point to an increased likelihood that Democrats can take back the Senate, the House, or both in 2018. Statistical analyses from FiveThirtyEight support this projection. In addition, multiple cases are scheduled to come before the Supreme Court and various other state and federal courts challenging the boundaries of districts that are gerrymandered along racial or partisan lines. Depending on how these courts rule, this could change the makeup of some districts and eliminate others entirely, creating an electoral map far more favorable to Democrats. In February 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared the state’s current district boundaries unconstitutional and drew new district lines. While this is generally considered a victory for Democrats, as the preceding map heavily favored Republicans, this new map also completely eliminates the Pennsylvania 18th district, which Conor Lamb had just won, in time for the 2018 midterm elections. The New York Times reports that Lamb’s residence will end up located in the slightly-less-Republican Pennsylvania 17th, where many have speculated he may make a bid for re-election.

While statistical analyses and trends, along with many political pundits, suggest that the Democrats may have a real shot at taking back the House and Senate in the 2018 midterm elections, it is not clear what strategies and types of candidates will help them get there. Democrats can only hope that whatever lessons they gleaned from the special elections of 2017 and 2018 are well-applied during the 2018 midterm elections.