Interpreting the National Mood After an Iowa Win for Democrats

I promised an exciting election, so I'm relieved that the 90th District in the Iowa House of Representatives delivered. In a special election, Democrat ...
by | September 2, 2009

I promised an exciting election, so I'm relieved that the 90th District in the Iowa House of Representatives delivered. In a special election, Democrat Curt Hanson held the seat for his party by 107 votes over Republican Stephen Burgmeier.

The Iowa result was the third big win for Democrats in legislative special elections in a week. They previously picked up a Republican-held seat in the Kentucky State Senate and held a conservative Senate district in Louisiana.

What should we make of these Democratic wins?

Probably, not too much. Republicans were having some good results prior to the last week. The Democratic victories can be explained pretty easily by the local circumstances in each race.

In Kentucky, the Democrats had a long-time elected official on the ballot, while the Republican's had a novice. In Louisiana, the Democratic candidate was part of a family political dynasty. In Iowa, well, should we really glean larger significance from an election decided by 107 votes?

Still, if local circumstances did decide these races, that's significant in its own right. This summer, there's been a growing sense that Republicans are motivated, while Democrats are disengaged. That motivation gap, combined with President Obama's declining approval ratings, seemed to augur a coming Republican electoral victory.

At least, that's the case that smart people like Charlie Cook were making. Maybe they're right, but this week's legislative election results at least suggest that the situation can't be that bad for Democrats. If local circumstances are determining election outcomes, that means that the national political environment isn't so slanted toward one party so as to supersede the local circumstances.

I suspect that if the midterm elections were held this fall instead of next, the national environment would be pretty much neutral. The president is modestly popular, while Democrats in Congress are unpopular. The Republican Party and Republican congressional leaders are unpopular too.

The good news for Republicans is that under that scenario they would gain substantial ground in state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrats have won so many seats in Republican-leaning turf the last two election cycles that a neutral election cycle is almost certain to produce Republican gains. On the other hand, Democrats would be expected to hold their own in the U.S. Senate (which operates on a six-year cycle) and in governorships (many of which are open seats).

Of course, the midterm elections won't be held this fall. Before we vote next year we'll know how quickly the economy recovered and how many new jobs that recovery produced. We'll know what happened with health care reform. We'll know whether troop withdrawals from Iraq were a success and whether the situation in Afghanistan continued to deteriorate.

The current political environment is quite relevant to the governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey. Without knowing any of those things, though, it's almost impossible to predict what the political environment will be like in November 2010.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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