A few weeks ago, I noted that while Democrats had fallen just short on a few (high-profile) occasions, there had been a reasonably consistent trend of Democrats overperforming their “expected performance” in nearly three dozen special elections to date. I also noted, at the time, that the sample size (which currently stands at 32 state and federal special elections) was small.
That changes in a little more than two months. On Tuesday, Nov. 7, voters go to the polls in two states: Virginia and New Jersey. At stake will be 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates (the state Senate is not up for election until 2019), and a total of 120 seats in the New Jersey state legislature (80 in the state Assembly, and 40 in the state Senate). Also, both states will elect governors, with New Jersey Democrats having an opportunity to reclaim the governor’s mansion after eight years of Chris Christie.
Democrats are already dreaming of a wave year in 2018, given the available polling data, incredible recruiting for the blue team, and a hugely unpopular Republican president. But there is a nonzero chance that the party could get started early, with critical shifts in the balance of power in Virginia, and the chance to solidify a huge edge in New Jersey, combining to give Democrats critical momentum heading into the midterm elections.
So, what could that “wave” look like in real, tangible numbers? Let’s dig into the numbers and get a feel for how good (or … alas … average) things could be in a touch over nine weeks.
Before we begin the analysis, let’s offer up one parameter for our look at this November: we are limiting our examination to the legislative balance of power for the two states in play.
Of course, if a wave election takes place, we can very easily conclude what will happen in both gubernatorial races. After all, both Democrats currently lead in polling (Democrat Phil Murphy in New Jersey has a particularly outsized lead), and if there really is a tailwind in November for the Democrats, it is hard to fathom that wouldn’t mean a blue sweep of the gubernatorial races.
With that in mind, let’s look at what a true wave might look like in the legislatures of Virginia and New Jersey.
State House of Delegates: (Currently) 66 Republicans, 34 Democrats
While the Virginia gubernatorial race has not been extensively polled (as news budgets shrink, so too does the access to available data), what data exists points to a modest lead for the Democrats, who are seeking to hold onto this statehouse.
Ralph Northam has led in eight of the 11 polls conducted thus far in 2017 (Gillespie has led in two, and a post-primary Monmouth poll had them tied), and the last handful of surveys fix Northam’s lead consistently in the 5-7 point range.
Why does that number matter? Because of coattails. If Northam can not only win, but win with a clear landslide, he might pull a few extra Democrats across the line. As our own Stephen Wolf noted this week, the median seat in the House of Delegates elections in 2013 ran around 6-7 points behind the statewide margins for Democrats. So a Northam rout could be the pathway to major Democratic gains, even if a Democratic majority feels like a lofty ambition at this point.
Aside from measuring gubernatorial coattails, there is another metric by which we can look at a wave election—speculating on how far ahead or behind the 2016 presidential margins November’s results will land.
Here, we do have some numbers from the special elections conducted thus far in the Trump era. But those numbers come with some strings attached: the sample size is small (again, just 32 special elections in 2017), and the range is wide (the best Democratic performance was 48 points ahead of the Trump-Clinton margins last year, but the worst Democratic performance was 23 points behind those same margins). That said, however, Democrats have run ahead of their presidential nominee in these special elections with considerable consistency (two-thirds of the time), and the GOP has only run more than five points ahead of the ‘16 margin a total of three times.
So, for the purposes of this exercise about wave elections, let’s pick a number. This isn't an entirely arbitrary exercise—on average, Democratic candidates have run 13 points ahead of the Trump/Clinton margins in the districts that have held special elections. Given that the Virginia elections would, by definition, be a little more comprehensive, let’s be a little more conservative: let’s put the “wave election” performance at a 9-point Democratic overperformance vis-a-vis the 2016 presidential race.
Were that to happen, it would put a total of 26 Republican-held seats in the House of Delegates in play. If the Democrats could win just two-thirds of them, they’d actually be in the majority.
Of course, here is where I pivot to being a buzzkill. Start with a very basic problem—Democrats didn’t field candidates in two of those districts. But before you condemn, consider those two cases. One, Danny Marshall (HD-14) has only been seriously challenged one time in his nine-term career, and represents a district that went for Trump 53-45, but more tellingly went easily for Ken Cuccinelli over Terry McAuliffe in the 2013 gubernatorial election (54-40), even while McAuliffe won statewide by a modest margin. The other uncontested seat, that of veteran Republican Chris Jones, might be a more marginal district on paper (Trump 52-44, Cooch 50-44), but Jones has never been threatened here. Indeed, his narrowest win was a 71-29 victory in 2001.
Then there are districts where presidential elections and local elections often do not behave in the same way. Take what could be a tempting open seat for the Democrats in HD-28, held since 1999 by the retiring Speaker of the House, Bill Howell. There is a seat where Donald Trump only carried by a very slight margin (48-47). However, Cuccinelli did marginally better four years ago (49-44), and this year’s GOP standard bearer, Ed Gillespie, easily outpaced Sen. Mark Warner here back in 2014 (53-44). Democrats, for sure, have a puncher’s chance here, but it might be a lot tougher than on first blush, if one was just looking at the 2016 presidential results. That same pattern holds in roughly a half dozen districts across the state. Most notably: Tim Hugo’s district (VA-40), where Democrats can point to Hillary Clinton’s double-digit win there (53-42), but Republicans can counter that both Gillespie (54-43) and Cuccinelli (51-44) won here with relative ease.
All that said, Democrats have a reason to be very optimistic about the prospects in the House of Delegates. They reaped the benefit of a huge recruiting cycle, and have candidates waiting in the wings in every marginal seat. What’s more, as has been often cited, the Democrats are seventeen seats shy of a majority here, and there are precisely 17 districts where the incumbent is a Republican, yet Hillary Clinton carried the district.
More precisely, Democrats are looking at eight GOP-held seats that all three recent Democrats (Clinton, Warner, McAuliffe) were able to carry. Now, that alone does not mean Democrats are the betting favorites for these seats—indeed, Republicans carried 53 percent of these districts in 2015 (counting, of course, only races that were contested).
That said, even absent a wave, the Democrats look to make a legitimate dent in the GOP majority. How deep a cut they make depends on the size of the “wave” that develops. The special election cycle has shown Democrats competitive in places in some districts that, on paper, should’ve been longshots.
So what is the “best case” scenario? Well, dreamers can dream, and on paper, enough competitive districts exist to make control of the chamber a question. But Democrats would have to win every marginal seat, and running the table is, of course, unlikely. What is starting to seem very plausible is the ability of Democrats to cut the GOP majority by roughly half, gaining seats in the high single digits. Barring a catastrophe, they are starting the cycle with a two-seat gain, given that a pair of open seats exist where Republicans retired in seats Clinton carried with 58-59 percent of the vote. If that was all they won in November, a two-seat gain would be a pretty large disappointment.
State Assembly—Democrats 52, Republicans 28; State Senate—Democrats 24, Republicans 16
If it seems that more attention is being paid to Virginia than New Jersey, that is a fair criticism. After all, in New Jersey, the dynamics are a bit different. Unlike Virginia, the partisan balance of power in the Garden State fairly represents the state of play in presidential elections. Contrast the two: in Virginia, a Clinton +5 state has in this decade nevertheless elected a cartoonishly large Republican House majority. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, a Clinton +13 state yields sizable majorities for the blue team.
Another current is at play, though, that could still speak to Democratic opportunities for a “wave,” even if, on paper, the number of opportunities seem few and far between. That current exists in the form of Chris Christie, the state’s wildly unpopular governor. It is fair to say that a guy whose “good polls” have him at around 25 percent job approval is likely to be a bit of an albatross on GOP chances in the state.
So, what would a wave, be it a Trump-inspired or Christie-inspired wave, look like in the Garden State?
Unlike Virginia, there are actually a couple of Democratic districts that went hard to the right in the Trump election, and they might be worth watching. The southernmost district in the state (the 1st district) is the best example. A 53-46 Obama district in 2012 became a 53-44 Trump district in 2016, and every incumbent is a Democrat. Stephen Sweeney’s 3rd district had a similar stark shift—going from 55-44 Obama to 50-46 Trump. However, those six incumbents (each Senate district also houses a pair of Assembly members that run together) can be perhaps calmed by the fact that there is a track record of districts thus far this cycle where the sharp Trumpian shift last year didn’t seem to have much permanence.
If the Democrats can hold onto those seats where Trump made major inroads, they have a few targets that shifted the other way last year. An example is the 21st district, which runs along a corridor on either side of I-78. Long a GOP stronghold, the district shifted hard at the federal level, going from a 52-47 Romney seat to a 53-43 Clinton seat. While the Senate seat is probably out of reach (even with a big partisan shift, it is hard to fathom Tom Kean Jr. losing his seat), it’s possible the Assembly seats could be competitive. But the best bet for the Democrats is to pick up the Senate seat in SD-07, where longtime GOP incumbent Diane Allen is retiring from a 62-35 Clinton seat. Veteran Democratic assemblyman Troy Singleton is vying to take her place, and even in a neutral environment, a Democratic pickup here seems hugely likely.
The bottom line, though, is that even in a wave election, big pickups in New Jersey seem a bit more remote. With the Democrats already enjoying large majorities, there just isn’t a lot of fruit left to pick. Unless the anti-Christie revulsion is just so strong that anybody with an “R” besides their name becomes toxic (and the gubernatorial polling does hint at this, for sure), it’s hard to believe that Democrats can hope for more than a Senate pickup of 1-2 seats, and they may well be pleased to hold the line on their nearly 2-to-1 majority in the Assembly.