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Special Elections Signal Some Momentum for the GOP

On Tuesday, Republicans picked up an Iowa House seat long held by Democrats. The GOP isn’t scoring tremendous gains but the party’s hold on power at the state level continues to frustrate Democrats.

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Iowa's capitol building. (David Kidd/Governing)
Jon Dunwell sought a seat in the Iowa House last November but narrowly lost. On Tuesday, he took the same seat in a special election by 20 percentage points.

The seat had long been held by Democrats. Dunwell’s win comes a month after the GOP’s victory in a competitive House district in suburban Des Moines. “Iowans have spoken loud and clear in these last two special elections about the direction we are taking the state,” said GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds. “Candidates who stood strongly for parental choice, personal responsibility, and pro-growth policies were successful. And we are just getting started.”

Iowa is firmly under GOP control. Republicans now enjoy a 60-40 majority in the state House. The bigger question is what Dunwell’s victory — along with other legislative special elections around the country — says about how the political winds will blow heading into the 2022 midterms.

In a November runoff, Republicans will have a chance to extend their recent gains in South Texas, an area that historically has favored the Democrats. After a Democrat vacated a San Antonio-area state House seat, Republican John Lujan took 42 percent of the vote in the initial round of voting last month, compared with 20 percent for Democrat Frank Ramirez.

“We’ve had a couple of big wins,” says Andrew Romeo, communications director for the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC). “The trend lines are positive for Republicans and the Democrats are on the defensive on the issues.”

The first midterm elections of the Trump, Obama and Clinton presidencies all presented the out-party with sizable gains at the state and congressional levels. The post-9/11 election of 2002 provided a rare exception when George W. Bush was president, but in 2006 the GOP took a “thumpin’” as Bush himself put it. There’s little reason to think that Democrats will be able to fight the historic tide pushing against them next year.

“We are very clear about the realities of the challenge that these midterms will present for Democrats,” says Christina Polizzi, national press secretary for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC). “The president’s party will typically lose seats in midterms.”

But Polizzi argues that despite such challenges, Democrats will have plenty of opportunities due to the GOP's "extreme" positions on issues such as abortion and the constant re-prosecution of the presidential election result. She also cautions against reading too much into the tea leaves presented by special elections this year. “That Iowa district (that Dunwell won) went for Trump 57 to Biden’s 41 in 2020,” she says. “We were able to hold it in the past because of a popular incumbent, so those results aren’t surprising.”

In 2017 and 2018, Democrats scored a net gain of 19 legislative seats in special elections. Dunwell’s victory represents just the second pickup for the GOP so far this year, nearly matched by the Democrats’ sole flip of a New Hampshire House seat.

Overall, neither party has done markedly better in terms of voting percentage this year, compared to last November. Since June 15, however, Republicans have outperformed in specials by an average of 8 percentage points, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis.

Redistricting is going to matter a lot more when it comes to next year’s elections than a small number of specials, says Democratic consultant Michael Davies. “It’s a little hard to figure out what’s going to happen just from special elections in old districts when the maps are going to be completely different in 2022,” he says.

Still, Republicans don’t need to make big gains next year. They’ve dominated state legislatures ever since their historic wins in 2010, the first midterm of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Republicans Regaining Ground

Typically, only a handful of seats change partisan hands through special elections. This year, there have been 64 special elections — 32 that were held by Democrats and 32 held by Republicans, with a total net change thus far of one seat toward the GOP. “The Republican overperformance is like a gnat’s eyebrow compared to the Democrats in 2017,” says Chaz Nuttycombe, director of CNalysis, a forecasting group that specializes in state legislative elections.

The GOP’s other pickup came in Connecticut, where Ryan Fazio won a state Senate contest in August. President Biden carried that district last year by 25 points and the race’s importance was spotlighted by the DLCC. “If we lose districts like this, ALL of our gains since 2018 could be at risk,” the group wrote in a fundraising email.

Fazio barely won a majority, with a couple of percentage points going to an independent. The Greenwich district had been held by the GOP for nearly a century before Democrats took it in 2018, but it’s the kind of toney suburban area where the party registered its greatest gains during Donald Trump’s presidency.

“I saw a preview of what may be coming in 2021 and 2022, and I just want to warn other Democrats just to not take anything for granted,” Blake Reinken, campaign manager for Alexis Gevanter, the Democrat who lost to Fazio, told The Hill. “Their base turned out, and we had to push our base to turn out as well.”

The Landscape Leading into 2022

Republicans currently hold 54 percent of the nation’s legislative seats. More importantly, they control far more chambers than Democrats. Republicans control both chambers in 30 states (counting Nebraska, which is unicameral and technically nonpartisan but firmly held by the GOP). Republicans also have a majority on paper in Alaska, but the state House is run by a multiparty coalition. Minnesota’s Legislature is otherwise the only one under divided control.

Republicans have had few places to go on offense since their blowout wins back in 2010 and 2014. They surrendered seven chambers to Democrats in 2018, but Democrats failed with their well-funded efforts to regain ground in 2020, heading into the redistricting cycle.

The only chambers to flip last year were the New Hampshire House and Senate, which both went to the GOP. That was the lowest amount of churn in control in decades. All told, Republicans gained about 100 seats in November, out of more than 6,000 at stake.

The GOP holds seven of the 10 states where legislative margins are thinnest. But in most states, their majorities are robust and often veto-proof. Those majorities are currently drawing themselves new maps that will be hard for Democrats to overcome (as Democrats are doing in states where they hold power, such as Oregon and Illinois).

All this suggests that the recent era of relative stasis at the legislative level may continue next year. Republicans are doing well but not gangbusters in terms of special election outcomes. But continuation of the status quo favors the GOP.
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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