Democrats held on to an open state Senate seat in Minnesota Monday night while the GOP held on to an open seat in the state’s lower House, with Democratic candidates in both cases outperforming Hillary Clinton in districts that Donald Trump carried.
As neither seat is changing partisan hands, the direct implications of the races are minimal — Karla Bigham will hold the Senate seat for Democrats while Jeremy Munson won the House race — and everything will proceed as normal.
But they do continue to indicate a national political environment that’s favorable to Democrats in the upcoming 2018 congressional elections. Holding the Senate seat raises the prospect that Democrats could seize a majority there, pending the outcome of some legal wrangling.
Both seats were vacant because incumbents resigned under a cloud of sexual misconduct allegations, which is just one of the ways Minnesota is an interesting state in terms of our current politics.
Hillary Clinton carried it in 2016, but like the rest of the Midwest, it tilted strongly in Trump’s direction relative to where it had been in 2012. Both of the districts that voted tonight followed that basic pattern. House District 23B voted by a narrow 3-point margin for Mitt Romney, but Trump won it in a 27-point landslide. Obama carried Senate District 54 by a fairly comfortable 7-point margin, but Trump eked out a 1-point victory.
Minnesota has two US Senate elections this November, plus two open House races in seats being vacated by Democratic incumbents in districts Trump won, plus an upscale suburban House district represented by Erik Paulsen (R-MN) that’s considered one of Democrats’ top pickup opportunities. The state’s political trends are of enormous national interest. Tonight’s results carry no guarantees for November, of course, but they seem to indicate that Democrats are succeeding in rolling back recent GOP gains in the state.
The whole Minnesota state Senate is now in play
With Monday night’s results, Republicans now hold a narrow 34-33 majority in the Minnesota state Senate — but that majority is at risk. When Sen. Al Franken resigned from the Senate, Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Lt. Gov. Tina Smith (D-MN) to fill the vacancy. That created a vacancy for the lieutenant governor job that, by statute, was automatically filled by state Senate President Michelle Fischbach, a Republican.
Fischbach views her elevation to the lieutenant governorship as essentially a dirty pool play by Minnesota Democrats to create a vacancy, so she has refused to relinquish her state Senate seat. Democrats are suing, arguing that the lieutenant governor can’t also be a state senator and that Minnesota law does not allow Fischbach to refuse her promotion.
Democrats’ hopes for securing the majority now rest on winning the lawsuit, creating the vacancy, and then winning the special election. Republicans will continue to control the Minnesota House one way or the other, so the short-term policy consequences here are not especially large. But as Democrats try to make a Trump-era down-ballot recovery, every little bit helps.
Democrats are cleaning up in special elections
According to an extremely useful comprehensive spreadsheet compiled by Daily Kos, across 70 special elections in 2017, Democrats ran 10 points ahead of Clinton and 7 points ahead of Obama’s 2012 results. Those numbers have accelerated into 2018. Across 11 races, Democrats are running 23 points ahead of Clinton and 8 points ahead of Obama.
Historically speaking, special election results usually are somewhat predictive of midterm general election outcomes, though I don’t think anyone believes it’s realistic for Democrats to obtain a nationwide 23-point swing relative to Clinton’s numbers.
It’s particularly interesting that Democratic results thus far show a much larger overperformance relative to Clinton in 2016 than to Obama in 2012. People who’ve crunched the numbers in detail say that’s because some Trump voters really are crossing over to vote for Democrats.
Meanwhile, the special elections are already having real-world impact.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has decided to leave a number of formerly GOP-held seats vacant rather than schedule special elections his party might lose, national Republicans are pushing the panic button on an upcoming special House election in Pennsylvania, and GOP leadership is letting scandal-plagued Rep. Blake Farenthold stick around in his seat rather than risk a special election.