ATLANTA — Democratic voters were more enthusiastic than Republicans in nearly a dozen federal special elections since President Donald Trump took office, an Associated Press analysis found, giving party leaders hope that even a series of narrow losses in GOP territory bodes well for them in November.
With the special elections now concluded ahead of the fall midterms, an AP review of nine House races and an Alabama special Senate election showed Democratic candidates consistently outperforming Republicans compared to the two parties' usual vote totals in regular general elections.
The strong Democratic turnout is a key factor fueling the party's hopes of regaining control of the House in November for the first time in eight years. It's particularly significant because Democrats often struggle to turn out their voters when a presidential candidate isn't on the ballot. The special election voting numbers could signal a change heading into the fall.
The latest indicator came Tuesday in Ohio, where Republican Troy Balderson holds a narrow lead over his Democratic rival, Danny O'Connor, setting up a potential recount in a suburban and small-town congressional district that President Donald Trump won by more than 11 percentage points and that Republicans have held since 1980.
The AP review went beyond percentage totals and compared special election raw vote totals to what Republicans and Democrats received from the same electorates in 2016. The methodology measures candidates' performance as a percentage of what they could expect in a presidential year when turnout is highest, with the results suggesting which party's coalition is more engaged and excited about the election cycle.
In Ohio, for example, Balderson's 101,500-plus votes amount to less than half of Trump's total in the district and just 40 percent of what former Rep. Pat Tiberi received in his last re-election. O'Connor, meanwhile, pulled in almost 62 percent of Hillary Clinton's 2016 totals and almost 90 percent of what the last Democratic candidate drew alongside the presidential race.
Altogether, Democrats got a higher proportion than Republicans of the party's usual presidential vote in eight out of 11 elections. They exceeded Republicans in 10 out 11 races when comparing the special election totals to the most recent House or Senate race involving the same electorate.
Special elections are not a perfect predictor of November, but if those enthusiasm gaps hold for dozens of more fundamentally competitive seats in November, Democrats would stand a strong chance of emerging with the House majority and be poised for statehouse gains, as well.
The data tracks with high-profile special election outcomes ahead of the 2010 midterms when Republicans flipped control of the House and many state legislatures. This year, the trends are giving the GOP pause.
"Obviously, this is a tough environment for Republicans," said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC devoted to defending House Republicans' 23-seat majority. An obviously enthusiastic Democratic base, Bliss said, puts the burden on Republican incumbents and open-seat candidates "to give the voters a reason to vote for them."
Trump mocked Democratic optimism this week on Twitter, noting the GOP has a lopsided record in federal special elections. Indeed, Republican candidates won seven of the nine special House races. But all seven were Republican seats to begin with, several of them open in the first place because Trump plucked members from supposedly safe seats to join his administration.
Democrats held a California seat, while Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb flipped a Pennsylvania congressional district Trump had won by almost 20 points. Alabama Sen. Doug Jones also pulled a shocker in a December 2017 contest barely a year after Trump won the state by 28 points.
"The numbers show a Democratic energy in the electorate that Republicans don't have, plus an advantage with independents that Democrats haven't had in a decade," said Democratic pollster Zac McCrary. "That's when waves happen and you win districts you aren't supposed to win."
Certainly, Democrats must contend with a tough Senate map — 10 incumbents are running in states where Trump won — and several GOP-run states have drawn congressional districts to Republicans' advantage, particularly in battleground suburbs that could determine House control. Some regular primaries have shown Republican strength as well: Texas Democrats touted a midterm primary turnout record this March as they try to make the state more competitive, but Republicans answered with their own record.
Still, it's worth noting that Republicans demonstrated enthusiasm advantages ahead of their 2010 sweep, most notably in January 2010 when they flipped the Massachusetts Senate seat in a special election after Ted Kennedy's death. Republican Scott Brown topped Democrat Martha Coakley by amassing 105 percent of John McCain's 2008 presidential vote and 126 percent of what Democrat John Kerry's Senate challenger had mustered 14 months before.
At the time, Democrats mostly blamed Coakley, just as many Republican blamed Lamb's and Jones' opponents for this cycle's upsets.
The strongest overall special election turnout during Trump's presidency came in a suburban Atlanta race that became the most expensive congressional matchup in history. That peak for Republicans involved now-Rep. Karen Handel drawing 84 percent of Trump's total and 67 percent of then-Rep. Tom Price's last election total before his brief stint as Trump's health secretary. Democrat Jon Ossoff, meanwhile, ended up exceeding the 2016 count for Price's opponent. Ossoff got 81 percent of Clinton's total.
Bliss, the Republican super PAC executive, said the Georgia numbers show Republicans' core supporters can be energized in November, as they were in the Atlanta suburbs after Ossoff very nearly won an outright majority in a first round of voting, only to lose a runoff.
"Our base is happy with what President Trump and the Republican Congress is doing," Bliss said. "Our candidates just have to make the stakes clear."