On Tuesday, North Carolina played host to the most closely watched election since the 2018 midterms. On paper, it was Republicans who emerged victorious, going 2-for-2 in two separate congressional elections. But there was also a silver lining for Democrats — their final vote margin in the night’s marquee race was much bluer than the district’s baseline partisanship.
That race was the do-over election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, where alleged election fraud tainted the results of the 2018 contest to such a degree that the state elections board opted to hold a new election. After the Republican candidate got just 905 more votes than the Democrat in the 2018 election, Republicans pulled off a clearer win this year: Based on unofficial results as of 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday night, Republican state senator Dan Bishop defeated Democrat Dan McCready 51 percent to 49 percent. However, Democrats did 11 points1 better in the district than we’d expect them to in a neutral political environment, as this is normally a heavily Republican district; it is 14 points redder than the nation as a whole, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric.2 And Trump won the district by 12 points in 2016.
The results also represent a continuation of the mini-realignment we’ve seen in the Trump era of suburbs getting bluer and rural areas moving even more toward the GOP. For instance, McCready lost the district even as he won suburban Mecklenburg County by 13 percentage points, an improvement on the 2018 results, when he won Mecklenburg by 10 points. (The portion of Mecklenburg that falls in the 9th District consists of affluent white areas of metro Charlotte.) But as noted by Ryan Matsumoto, an analyst at Inside Elections, McCready did worse than his 2018 performance in every other county, most of which are sparsely populated.
On the other hand, the sleepier special election in the North Carolina 3rd Congressional District held unambiguously good news for the GOP. Republican state representative Greg Murphy defeated Democrat Allen Thomas, a former Greenville mayor, 62 percent to 38 percent. That almost exactly matches the district’s R+24 partisan lean.
Individually, the results of these races can reasonably be dismissed as the result of unique circumstances. But taken together, the results of special elections3 do mean something for 2020. Specifically, if one party is performing consistently better than its normal partisan baseline, that has historically presaged a strong cycle for that party in the next regularly scheduled election. Most recently, of course, Democratic candidates in 2017-2018 special elections did much better than a weighted average of 2016 and 2012 presidential results in their states and districts, and Democrats wound up winning control of the House amid a historic blue wave.
But 2019’s federal special elections so far have not been nearly as good for Democrats, although they have still been a bit Democratic-leaning. On average, the margins have been 3 points more Democratic-leaning than partisan lean would suggest:
How Democrats have performed in special elections in 2019
Federal special elections, by the seat’s partisan lean and final vote margin
|Year||Date||Seat||Partisan Lean||Vote Margin||Dem. Swing|
|2019||May 21||Pennsylvania 12th||R+35||R+36||-1|
|Sept. 10||North Carolina 3rd*||R+24||R+24||0|
|Sept. 10||North Carolina 9th*||R+14||R+2||+11|
It’s probably still too early to tell what this means, since the sample size of 2019-2020 federal special elections remains on the smaller side (until Tuesday, there had only been one all year). It could be notable for 2020, though, that the two special elections that closely matched presidential partisanship did not feature very active campaigns, while the high-profile 9th District election disproportionately activated Democratic voters.
Other indicators also suggest that the national environment has gotten slightly less blue since 2018 but still favors Democrats, though they disagree how much. As of April, Democrats were also overperforming in the average state-legislative special election (of which we have dozens of examples since 2018) by 5 percentage points, and they have had several even stronger performances recently. And our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot4 gives Democrats a 6.5-point lead; just before the 2018 election, Democrats had an 8.7-point lead, which almost exactly matched the eventual House popular vote.
Republicans can enjoy their wins tonight; with the two new Republicans taking their seats, they will have cut the Democrats’ House majority to 235-199. But early signs still point to another Democratic-leaning year in 2020 — just maybe not another “blue wave.”