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What Can Special Elections So Far Tell Us About The 2022 Midterms?

At this point in the cycle, special elections are one of the main indicators we have for understanding what the midterm election environment might look like. If a party consistently outperforms its typical margins in these irregularly scheduled elections — like Democrats did in 2017 and early 2018 — it is usually a sign that the political environment is leaning in its direction

This cycle’s special elections aren’t pointing in as obvious a direction as those of the last midterm cycle. But that could be changing, as Republicans recently had a particularly strong special election performance in California.

On April 5, voters in California’s 22nd Congressional District went to the polls to choose a successor to former Rep. Devin Nunes, who resigned from Congress on Jan. 1 to run former President Donald Trump’s new social-media site. It was just a primary, but under California’s rules for special elections, all candidates run on the same primary ballot regardless of party — and if no one gets a majority, the top two finishers advance to a general election. That’s what happened in this case: One Republican and one Democrat will now advance to the general election in June. But the first-round results were also notable because the four Republican candidates combined outperformed the two Democratic candidates combined by more than 32 percentage points (66 percent to 34 percent).

This is significant because the 22nd District (as currently constituted1) has a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean2 of R+11, meaning that, in a neutral political environment, we’d expect Republicans to win it by only 11 percentage points. Republicans, in other words, outperformed their partisan baseline here by almost 22 points!

Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re in an R+22 national environment. For one thing, Republicans lead polls of the generic congressional ballot, which asks voters which party they plan to vote for for Congress without naming specific candidates, by an average of only 3 points. For another, there are plenty of reasons why this special election may have been, well, special.

There’s the fact that it was an all-party primary, which means it wasn’t a straightforward Republican vs. Democrat race like most special elections. What’s more, the campaign had the unusual distinction of being an election for a seat that will soon cease to exist. California’s new congressional map carves up the current 22nd District and parcels it out to four neighboring districts — all of which already have incumbent congressmen running in them. In other words, the winner of the special election was very likely to be a lame duck immediately upon their election.3 Finally, with the special election having little bearing on control of the next Congress or the area’s future representation, many residents didn’t bother to vote. Only 21 percent of registered voters in the district cast a ballot.

Quirks like this are why it’s generally a bad idea to draw conclusions about the midterms from just one special election. It’s better to look at a party’s average overperformance in all special elections for the cycle. And when you throw in the seven other congressional special elections that have taken place since President Biden was inaugurated, the picture is much more mixed. Republicans have overperformed the partisan lean of these districts by an average margin of just 2 points — not exactly the red tsunami suggested by the California 22nd race.

2021-22 special elections have been a mixed bag

How the final vote-share margins in federal special elections in the 2022 cycle compare with the seats’ FiveThirtyEight partisan leans

Date Seat Partisan Lean Vote Margin Margin Swing
March 20, 2021 Louisiana 2nd* D+51 D+66 D+15
March 20, 2021 Louisiana 5th* R+31 R+45 R+13
May 1, 2021 Texas 6th* R+11 R+25 R+14
June 1, 2021 New Mexico 1st D+18 D+25 D+7
Nov. 2, 2021 Ohio 11th D+57 D+58 EVEN
Nov. 2, 2021 Ohio 15th R+19 R+17 D+2
Jan. 11, 2022 Florida 20th D+53 D+60 D+7
April 5, 2022 California 22nd* R+11 R+32 R+22
Average D+13 D+11 R+2

Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.

*Top-two primaries: Vote margin is the total vote share of all Democratic candidates combined minus the total vote share of all Republican candidates combined.

Source: State election offices

The margins in those special elections have been really inconsistent, too. Republicans have done really well in some races, like those for the California 22nd and Texas 6th. But Democrats have also punched above their weight in districts like the Louisiana 2nd and New Mexico 1st. So the picture is still more confusing than clear at this point.

It’s possible, though, that the California 22nd represents the beginning of a trend, and that special elections from this point on will reveal a more unambiguous Republican advantage. (This was, after all, the first special election to take place since Republicans opened up a significant lead in generic-ballot polling.) If so, we won’t have to wait long to find out. 

No fewer than five special elections are on the calendar for the summer: On June 7, Republican former state Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway and Democratic water resource manager Lourin Hubbard will face off in the runoff for the California 22nd. Then, Alaska’s at-large House seat and Texas’s 34th District will hold all-party primaries on June 11 and 14, respectively. Next, Republican state Sen. Mike Flood and Democratic state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks will go head to head in Nebraska’s 1st District on June 28. Finally, Minnesota’s 1st District will also hold a special general election on Aug. 9.

If Republicans (or, for that matter, Democrats) outperform partisan lean in all of these races, it will be a lot more obvious what special elections are telling us about November. But if these five races produce another batch of contradictory results, we may have to conclude that the strong GOP performance in the California 22nd was a fluke. Either way, we’re about to get a lot of data about the way the electorate is feeling ahead of the 2022 midterms, so stay tuned.

Footnotes

  1. Like every other state, California recently redrew its congressional districts to account for the 2020 census; however, the special election is taking place under the old lines, because it’s to finish the term Nunes was elected to in 2020, using California’s old congressional map.

  2. Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.

  3. Three of the candidates in the special election, including the two who advanced to the general election, simply declined to seek a second term; the other three are waging long-shot bids against Rep. Jim Costa in the neighboring 21st District in November.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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