Special Elections: On Tuesday night, voters in two counties on the eastern outskirts of Oklahoma City cast ballots in a special election to fill a vacancy for Oklahoma’s 28th State House District, a seat Republicans should have held without so much as an eyeblink: Donald Trump carried it by a monster 73-23 margin in November, even better than Mitt Romney’s 69-31 win four years earlier.
So what happened? Republican Zack Taylor, the owner of an oil and gas company, eked out just a 50-48 victory over attorney Steve Barnes, his Democratic opponent, a difference of only 56 votes. That is, simply put, a stunning collapse: Trump won by 50, yet Taylor squeaked through by just 2—a 48-point fall. By contrast, former Republican state Rep. Tom Newell, whose resignation created this vacancy, easily won re-election last year 67-33.
We’ve almost never seen anything this dramatic, but the outcome fits into a pattern we’ve witnessed ever since Trump’s win last year. Nationwide, there have now been a dozen races pitting a Republican versus a Democrat in legislative and congressional special elections, and in nine of them, Democratic candidates have performed better than the 2016 presidential results.
As we’ve noted repeatedly, this is a remarkable development. For years, Democratic turnout has struggled mightily when there’s no presidential race on the ballot. Indeed, one thorough study examining elections that took place in 2013 found that Democrats tended on average to perform 12 points worse than Barack Obama had just the previous year. Now the exact opposite is happening.
Of course, every race has unique elements, and in Oklahoma in particular, a savage and unresolved budget crisis presided over by the GOP has soured many voters on Republicans. And not every election has moved toward Democrats (Republicans simultaneously held on to the mayor’s office in Omaha, Nebraska Tuesday night) or augured for future gains (Democrats picked up two dark red legislative seats in Oklahoma special elections last cycle but didn’t do well in the fall).
But the one common thread to all of these elections in every state is, of course, Trump. His outrages continue to fire up Democrats everywhere, and his latest—his efforts to repeal health care and his sacking of FBI Director James Comey—will only take things to new heights.
We’ll continue to monitor these races to see whether this pattern holds, and we have several upcoming contests to watch, including special elections for Congress in three states, as well as another legislative special election in Oklahoma in July, near Tulsa. But Tuesday’s election in the Sooner State suggests there’s no sign this surge will abate any time soon.
• FL-Gov: Florida man Adam Putnam finally put an end to one of the worst-kept secrets in state politics by announcing that he will indeed run for governor next year. The 42-year-old Republican is currently finishing up his second term as state agriculture commissioner after having previously served 10 years in the House. After becoming the then-youngest person ever elected to the Florida legislature at age 22, spending his entire adult career in public office could be a liability in a modern GOP primary. Putnam is widely seen as having had his eye on the governor’s mansion for many years, and an allied political committee that opened in 2015 has already raised over $10 million for the race.
A handful of other potential Republican candidates are also interested. State Sen. Jack Latvala recently told SaintPetersBlog that he would make up his mind on whether to run in July. His position as chairman of the state Senate appropriations committee could give him a leg up with fundraising, but his record as a perceived moderate likely won’t do him any favors in a Republican primary.
Another candidate who is no one’s idea of a moderate, Rep. Ron DeSantis, is reportedly considering running according to the Tampa Bay Times’ Adam Smith. DeSantis is a member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus and previously ran for Senate in 2016 until Sen. Marco Rubio turned around to run for re-election after losing the presidential nomination. Last month, the congressman notably did not commit to running for re-election in 2018.
Putnam’s statewide perch and his significant fundraising leave him as the ostensible frontrunner for the nomination to succeed term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Scott. However, with well over a year until the primary in this large and expensive state, the race is still quite open and Scott himself is reportedly keen on finding a new candidate to back. Wealthy and eccentric businessman “Alligator” Ron Bergeron recently said he was considering the the race and could potentially self-fund into the eight figures, while state House Speaker and Scott nemesis Richard Corcoran is also interested.
• GA-Gov: The race to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Nathan Deal in 2018 has drawn significant interest from a large field of candidates on both parties, but we can cross one name off the list. Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, a Democrat who serves in a nonpartisan post, said on Wednesday that she will not seek statewide office next year, although she is still interested in a possible 2020 Senate bid. Tomlinson’s decision not to run likely further solidifies the position of the apparent Democratic primary frontrunner, state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who recently filed paperwork for a bid and is expected to run, although there’s still plenty of time for this race to develop.
On the Republican side, state Sen. Michael Williams seems to have the gubernatorial itch, but he’s so far being coy about his intentions by refusing to rule it out, claiming he wants to wait until after the 6th Congressional District special election on June 20 before revealing his plans. Williams has steadfastly tethered himself to Donald Trump and could potentially capitalize on the Donald’s diehard supporters in the primary, but he’ll face a crowded race if he does run. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, and state Sen. Hunter Hill have all already joined the race, while ex-Rep. Jack Kingston and several other noteworthy Republicans are considering it.
• MI-Gov: After Rep. Dan Kildee recently announced he would not run for the open governor’s office in 2018, leaving former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer as the most prominent Democrat in the race, interest appears to have renewed among other potential candidates. The Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley reports that University of Michigan Board of Regents member Mark Bernstein didn’t rule out running after being courted by those who weren’t eager to support Whitmer, although there’s no direct quote. Bernstein was elected to his statewide post in 2012 and is a prominent and wealthy attorney who could likely do some self-funding. Nolan also says that some Democrats are trying to recruit Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, but there’s no indication of whether he’s interested or not.
Kathleen Gray at the Detroit Free Press name-drops Rep. Debbie Dingell and state Sens. David Knezek and Curtis Hertel as possible Democratic candidates, though none of them appears to have said anything publicly about running. She also notes that prominent attorney Geoffrey Fieger recently announced that he was considering the race and would likely bring some name recognition if he got in. However, Fieger’s long history of taking on controversial major cases like defending physician-assisted suicide Dr. Jack Kevorkian could prove to be a liability, and Fieger previously lost the 1998 election in a 62-38 landslide as Team Blue’s nominee against GOP then-Gov. John Engler.
In addition to Whitmer, Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed is already running and would become the country’s first Muslim governor if he were to win, but he starts off with a distinct name recognition disadvantage. Businessman Shri Thanedar also previously filed paperwork to run, but hasn’t officially launched his campaign yet.
• MN-Gov: Republican Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the name you know, has announced that he is making another go at the governor’s office in 2018. Johnson lost to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton 50-45 in 2014, and he has quickly tried to appeal to Trump supporters since last year’s elections. He joins a race that has seemingly brought every semi-interested politician out of the woodwork. Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman and state Rep. Matt Dean are both already running, while several other prominent Republicans are considering it, including state House Speaker Kurt Daudt, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, and other legislators.
On the Democratic side, three-term state Attorney General Lori Swanson is one of the biggest-named possible contenders who hasn’t revealed their plans, but she recently confirmed her interest on Tuesday. Swanson said it was “awfully early” to decide on running and that she might make her choice of whether to run for governor or to seek re-election sometime in the fall. If Swanson runs, she would join a Democratic primary that’s every bit as crowded as the Republican one. Rep. Tim Walz, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, state Auditor Rebecca Otto, and state Reps. Erin Murphy and Tina Liebling are all already running, while a handful of other noteworthy Democrats are considering it.
• CA-39: Suburban Orange County has long been the bastion of Southern California conservatism, but the highly educated and diverse locale swung sharply to the left in 2016, so it’s no surprise that Democrats are eager to target the 39th District after it flipped from 51-47 Romney to 51-43 Clinton. Mai-Khanh Tran is the latest name to surface as a potential Democratic challenger to longtime Republican Rep. Ed Royce. Politico describes her as a refugee who became a “Wall Street analyst-turned-pediatrician” and is reportedly expected to run. Tran would be a first-time candidate whose campaign skills are unknown, but she has reportedly been in contact with Democratic operatives.
• CA-48: Longtime Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher hasn’t faced a close re-election battle in years, but after his well-educated coastal Orange County district lurched from 55-43 Romney all the way to 48-46 Clinton, several noteworthy Democrats have announced 2018 bids or are potential candidates. Politico reports that Democratic officials have been in contact with biologist Hans Keirstead about a possible bid, though there’s no word from Keirstead himself, who doesn’t appear to have run for office before. Keirstead sold his stem-cell research company for a reported $120 million a few years ago, meaning he might be able to do some serious self-funding if he gets in. Real estate company owner Harley Rouda and real estate broker Boyd Roberts are already running here as Democrats.
• FL-27: Just a day after state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez entered the race for Florida’s now-open 27th District, another notable Democrat, attorney Francisco Cerezo, says he’s giving “serious thought” to a bid. Politico’s Marc Caputo says Cerezo is being encouraged to run by “former Obama campaign fundraisers from Miami,” and chief among them appears to be consultant Freddy Balsera, who advised Obama’s 2008 campaign on Hispanic outreach. Balsera, though, came under fire last cycle for endorsing Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo in the neighboring 26th District, even though the DCCC was targeting the race, so his seal of approval may not be looked upon warmly by at least some local Democrats.
Tons of other candidates on both sides are looking at the contest, and a few others have already entered. For Democrats, Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and businessman Scott Fuhrman are running, while Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro is the only Republican in the race so far.
• IL-10: We won’t have Bob Dold! to kick around anymore after a spokesperson for the former Republican congressman announced that he would not run for a fifth time in Illinois’ 10th Congressional District, located along Chicago’s affluent and well-educated North Shore. Dold narrowly won his first term here in 2010, but Democrats redrew his blue-leaning seat to become even more Democratic in redistricting and he narrowly lost re-election to Democratic now-Rep. Brad Schneider in 2012. Dold returned the favor in the GOP wave year of 2014 by just barely ousting Schneider, but the Democrat got the best of him in their third bout in 2016.
Dold was likely the GOP’s best hope in this ancestrally Republican suburban district, but Hillary Clinton’s 62-33 landslide would have been a daunting obstacle in 2018. Nonetheless, Republican attorney Jeremy Wynes is undeterred and just launched a bid of his own on Tuesday. Wynes previously served as the Midwest regional director for the hawkish pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC before leading the Midwest office for the Republican Jewish Coalition. While he doesn’t seem to have run for office before, Wynes does appear to have some connections that could serve him well as a candidate, but this will likely still be a very inhospitable seat for the GOP given the district’s long-term trend toward Democrats.
• MN-02: Trump-like Republican Rep. Jason Lewis narrowly won his first term in this suburban seat south of Minneapolis and St. Paul by the same 47-45 margin that Trump carried the district, and Democrats unsurprisingly have him in their crosshairs for 2018. Local tipsheet Morning Take mentions Democratic state Sen. Dan Schoen as a potential challenger and suggests that his background as a police officer and populist might be an asset among Trump-friendly blue-collar voters. Businesswoman Angie Craig, a prodigious fundraiser who narrowly lost the heavily contested 2016 race to Lewis, has previously said that she’s considering a rematch next year and will decide by summer.
• NY-24, NY-Gov: Democratic Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner faces term-limits in 2018 and has been the subject of heightened media attention over whether she might run for House against Republican Rep. John Katko or even for governor against Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Miner recently kept her cards close to the vest by refusing to rule out a bid for higher office, stating “I’m not going to be commenting on whether I’ll be running for statewide or federal office until I make a decision.”
Miner faced speculation that she could seek higher office in previous cycles too, but ultimately didn’t go for it. However, the New York Times recently reported that both state and national Democrats are keen on her running for the 24th Congressional District. As the mayor of the district’s largest city, she would undoubtedly be a strong recruit against Katko, who won a 60-39 landslide in 2016 over a touted challenger and won’t be easy to beat in this 49-45 Clinton seat.
• SC-05: Next Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff in this conservative Rock Hill-area seat between state House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope and ex-state Rep. Ralph Norman is turning into yet another battle between the more establishment-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the more hardline anti-tax Club for Growth. The Chamber previously backed Pope, and now the Club is getting in on the action by throwing their endorsement to Norman, who recently said he would likely join the far-right House Freedom Caucus if elected. Meanwhile, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who recently stepped down as governor, tacitly endorsed Norman by donating $100 to his campaign, although she hasn’t made any public statement.
Putting their money where their mouth is, the Club began airing two TV ads in support of Norman (here and here). The first one attacks Pope for his work as a personal-injury lawyer and slams him as a professional politician who is only looking out for himself. The second spot hammers Pope on health care by trying to argue he is a “backdoor” supporter of Obamacare based on his legislative record.
• VA-10: On Wednesday, Democrat Dorothy McAuliffe, the wife of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, announced that she would not run for Virginia’s 10th Congressional District against GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock next year. McAuliffe had been considering a bid, but Democrats had already landed a top-tier recruit in state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, so the DCCC will undoubtedly be glad to avoid a titanic primary in a district that offers a huge pickup opportunity. (The 10th, located in the D.C. suburbs, swung from 51-49 Romney to 52-42 Clinton.)
However, Wexton does still face some opposition for the Democratic nod, as three other candidates are also running: Army veteran Daniel Helmer, former Obama administration official Lindsey Davis Stover, and former teachers union president Kimberly Adams.
• WV-03: With GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins now running for the Senate against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, candidates are starting to line up for Jenkins’ House seat. Like the rest of the state, West Virginia’s 3rd District has, at least on the federal level, charged hard to the right in recent years. Though it was ancestrally Democratic for generations, Jenkins became the first Republican in over 80 years to carry the area in 2014, when he unseated veteran Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall. It was also Trump’s best district in the state: He utterly dominated there, winning 73-25.
It’s therefore extremely hard to imagine Democrats competing for this seat, but at the same time, Democratic Gov. Jim Justice carried this district 55-38 last year, so the Mountain State still manages to confound expectations. Nevertheless, the action in the race to replace Jenkins is, so far, confined to the GOP side. Former state Rep. Rick Snuffer, who lost to Rahall 54-46 in 2012, quickly joined the fray, though he admitted that he’s “not the typical political type the Washington establishment usually comes running after when there is an open congressional seat like this.” If Snuffer doesn’t succeed this time, he could go down in history as the last West Virginia Republican to lose a House race to a Democrat.
Meanwhile, state GOP chair Conrad Lucas, who’s described as an “ardent” Trump supporter, says he’s giving “great consideration” to a bid but only promised an announcement “in due time.”
• Omaha, NE Mayor: Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, a Republican, defeated former Democratic state Sen. Heath Mello 53-47 to win re-election in Tuesday’s officially non-partisan general election. In the April primary, Mello held Stothert to just a 44-41 edge, and Democrats were optimistic that he could make up the remaining ground he needed in the second round. However, 11 percent of the primary vote went to Taylor Royal, a Trump supporter who quickly endorsed Stothert, and his backers appear to have provided all the cushion the incumbent needed.
Overall turnout did increase quite a bit from the primary, going from 59,000 last month to 97,000 on Tuesday. In both 2009 and 2013, Democratic Mayor Jim Suttle dramatically increased his vote share between the primary and the general even though most of his primary foes were Republicans both times (though he still badly lost to Stothert in 2013), but Democrats did not benefit this time.
Somewhat surprisingly for a mayoral contest in the country’s 43rd-largest city, this race wound up attracting national attention, and Mello in particular hoped that Democratic anger with Trump would boost his fortunes in a city that Trump lost 51-43. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders even made a point of stopping in Omaha to campaign with Mello.
However, Mello got caught up in an unexpected debate over his progressive bona fides, which Sanders touted but reproductive rights advocates sharply questioned on account of Mello’s record on abortion. Mello describes himself as “pro-life” and had supported a bill in the legislature that requires doctors to inform women seeking abortions that they could receive an ultrasound before the procedure. Daily Kos, after initially endorsing Mello, pulled its support upon learning of this legislation.
The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, and Stephen Wolf, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, and James Lambert.
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