As readers of Daily Kos Elections knew within less than two hours of the closing of the polls Tuesday night, Democrats denied the New Hampshire GOP a much-coveted victory in a special election for one of the state’s 24 Senate seats. Democrat Kevin Cavanaugh, a Manchester city alderman, scored an impressive 55-44 victory over David Boutin, who held this very seat for the Republicans from 2010 until his retirement in 2016. That win winnowed the GOP’s margin in the chamber back to a 14-10 advantage.
Republicans, eager to expand their Senate majority to a far safer 15-9 spread in advance of the 2018 midterms, managed to coax Boutin back into the political arena in the hopes that he could reclaim this seat, which went to the Democrats for the first time in decades last year on the strength of the candidacy of teacher/coach Scott McGilvray.
On paper, this is the type of special election that the GOP should have claimed—indeed, it’s noteworthy that WMUR’s John DiStaso has described Cavanaugh’s win as “an upset,” despite the fact that the race was nominally a “hold” for the Democrats. The district is swingy at the federal level (Romney claimed it by just a point in 2012, while Clinton claimed it by a fraction of a point in 2016). If anything, the 16th district tilts toward the GOP downballot.
If there was a special election that the Republicans could’ve yanked from the Democrats and offered a Kevin Bacon-esque “Remain calm … all is well!” moment for the red team, this was it. But it didn’t happen, and that should make Republicans very nervous.
Thus far, the electoral underperformance of the Republican Party in the special elections that have taken place in the Trump era has been indisputable. Democrats have outperformed Hillary Clinton’s showing last year in roughly three-quarters of the races held since Trump won, a huge reversal from 2013, when Democrats consistently ran behind Barack Obama.
However, each of the (bigger) letdowns for the GOP has been met with an excuse that, on paper, gave them a plausible explanation for the letdown. Democrat James Thompson coming within 6 points of the upset in Kansas? That was attributed either to (a) Sam Brownback being universally reviled, or (b) the GOP getting caught napping. Democrat Rob Quist likewise coming within 6 points in Montana? Chalk that one up to (a) Rob Quist’s unique background or (b) Greg Gianforte’s late decision to go all WWE on a reporter. And then there was Democrat Archie Parnell’s near-upset in SC-05, a deep red district that only went 51-48 for the Republican. That one was explained away by almost comically weak turnout because, it seemed, everyone in the political universe was focused about 150 miles to the southwest (the Handel-Ossoff showdown in Georgia was on the same day).
The problem for the GOP here is that no excuse—reasonable or otherwise—applies here. Let’s be clear, in a dispassionate look at this race, this is a contest that the Republicans should have won.
Let’s consider the reasons:
The GOP ran their best possible candidatE
Boutin was not just a former Republican state senator: He was the past occupant of this state Senate district. Not only that, but his electoral record in the region was so formidable that it was hard not to go into election night last night and not consider him the favorite.
His first legislative victory came in 2008, when he rode to victory as the top vote-getter in his state House district, centered on his hometown of Hooksett. When Ted Gatsas was elected Manchester mayor, Boutin defeated a Democratic state House colleague by a 58-42 margin in a 2010 special election for the Senate. Since then, he has only been seriously endangered once—Boutin held on for a 49-48 win in his 2012 re-election bid. All told, in his four successful bids for this district, the Republican standard-bearer had won by an average of 11.4 points, a more than comfortable edge.
The defeat here went beyond Trump
Given the recent series of brutal news cycles for the perpetually embattled (and deeply unpopular) Trump, it might be convenient for GOP apologists to suggest that Boutin was a victim of the moment, a casualty of “media anti-Trump hysteria,” or some such nonsense.
This seems highly unlikely on several levels.
First of all, unlike a lot of states in the union, New Hampshire does not appear to have recoiled quite as heavily in the face of the first six months of the Trump presidency as the rest of the nation. While his approval there, according to Gallup, is underwater (45/51), that’s only a two-point drop from his popular vote total here. On average, nationally, Trump’s numbers have tanked by closer to 7 points off his November vote tally.
Also, this particular district seems an ill fit in terms of being sensitive to the Trump political phenomenon. Unlike a lot of districts nationwide, this district held its relative balance last year, with the overall GOP performance only moving by roughly a single percentage point. Some districts swung strongly to GOP last year (especially in the Rust Belt), while some swung wildly away from the GOP (see Georgia’s 6th District, which is why the special election there became seen as a bellwether, despite the fact that the GOP has not had to seriously sweat this seat in a generation).
That Republicans lost this open seat last November probably had more to do with the strengths of the Democratic nominee (McGilvray was the first Democrat to win here in ages) than it did any sudden coolness to the GOP in the age of Trump. And Trump was only a small part of the reason why the GOP lost it, by nearly three times the margin, in this special election.
What’s more, even if there was any lingering Republican hesitation towards Trump here, Bouting had, to some extent, insulated himself from any anti-Trump animus. In 2015, Boutin was an early endorser of John Kasich, the living embodiment of #nevertrump if ever there was one.
So, this is not attributable to a bad candidate, nor is it attributable to anything problematic in the last several news cycles that derailed the GOP. Something deeper is going on here, and that’s why there should be trepidation in the red corner.
Special elections are, almost always, about enthusiasm. Democrats have it. The GOP does not.
Special elections are normally low-turnout affairs. The huge attention lavished on Georgia’s 6th (which had monstrous turnout) obscured that reality a bit. Therefore, getting your partisans to care enough to vote in a special election is of paramount importance.
Comparing the turnout in this special election to the last midterm (2014) turnout here is instructive. Turnout, as is often the case in specials, was less than half of what it was in 2014. But the Democrats held onto 51 percent of their 2014 support, while Boutin could only hang onto 33 percent of his 2014 vote tally. This can only happen for two reasons: (1) a sea change in voter preferences in the district (which doesn’t square with the available evidence), or (2) a sizable enthusiasm gap.
It’s worth nothing that there is a reasonable comparison to be made here, as there was a special election for this seat back in 2010 (the state Senate was redistricted in 2012, but this particular district was essentially unaltered). As it happens, Boutin almost received an identical number of votes in his 2010 and 2017 special elections (3,770 vs. 3,814). The difference? Cavanaugh scored 4,746 votes, while the Democratic nominee in 2010 managed just shy of 2,700. In other words, the GOP vote tally essentially held steady, while the Democrats saw their vote tally go up by over 75 percent.
Plus, as Carolyn Fiddler has noted, it’s not as though the Republicans chalked this race off. Far from it: The two biggest GOP names in the state, Gov. Chris Sununu and former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, cut ads for Boutin, and the state party kicked in over $60,000 to help his cause.
But Cavanaugh also had some assets in his corner: he was actually able to narrowly outraise the quasi-incumbent ($125,000 to $108,000), and he had critical support from both Daily Kos and the DLCC. And, in that support, there is a story: When a state legislative special election, in the middle of the summer, draws online contributions from nearly 1,200 people, that’s some burgeoning enthusiasm right there.
It goes without saying that vast majority of the public, and probably a majority of folks living in the Granite State, rolled through this summer week without even knowing this election took place. But smart political observers would be wise to take note. In what has been a year fought largely on GOP-friendly turf, the Republicans finally had a legitimate shot at a Democratic-held seat under the best possible circumstances.
It was an absolutely winnable seat for the GOP in New Hampshire, and they didn’t just lose—they got spanked.