Two things happened on Tuesday night that you need to pay attention to:
1. Democrats won a Missouri state House special election in a district where Donald Trump had prevailed by 28 points in November 2016. The victory by Mike Revis (D) was the 35th time since Trump was elected that Democrats have flipped a Republican-held state legislative seat.
2. In the Minnesota gubernatorial caucuses – the first step in the state’s nominating process – 30,000 Democrats turned up to caucus as compared to just 11,000 Republicans. For Democrats, that was an increase from the 22,000 who participated in the 2010 governor’s caucuses – the last time the seat was open. For Republicans, it was a major decline from the 20,000 people who participated in 2010.
The common thread here is turnout. Democrats – in Missouri and Minnesota as well as Wisconsin and Oklahoma and lots of other places where state legislative seats have tipped from R → D over the past year – are highly energized.
Outraged actually may be a better word. They can’t believe Trump won, can’t believe he has done what he has done in office and view every election as a chance to send him a message that they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
Republicans, on the other hand, are more complacent. Trump won. The GOP controls the House and Senate. There’s simply less reason in their minds to make sure they turn out.
“So the people are happy,” explained Trump in a tax speech in Cincinnati earlier this week. “And they don’t get out, and they don’t vote like they should. Maybe they go to a movie in ‘18.”
The results of that sort of base energy disparity is apparent to anyone paying attention to politics over the last year.
In Virginia, Democrats flipped 15 Republican seats in the November 2017 election. A 16th seat ended tied but Republicans retained control after their candidate won a drawing of lots. In Oklahoma, Democrats have picked up three GOP-held state legislative seats since Trump’s win. In New Hampshire, two GOP seats flipped in September alone.
It’s not just about state legislative seats either. In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, won by a larger-than-expected margin thanks to sky-high Democratic turnout. In Alabama, Doug Jones became the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in the state since 1992 – buoyed by massive African-American turnout.
There are, of course, mitigating circumstances in many of these races. In Alabama, for example, Roy Moore’s campaign went totally off the rails since a series of women went public with accusations that Moore had pursued relationships – wanted and unwanted – with them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. In Missouri, Republicans were quick to blame Gov. Eric Greitens’ (R) ongoing sex scandal for the loss.
And, of late, there are some signs of a bit of a Republican resurgence fueled by passage of the tax cut law. The Democratic lead on the generic ballot – would you rather have a Democratic or Republican member of Congress – has shrunk from double digits to mid-single digits. Trump’s approval rating – thanks to almost unanimous support from Republicans – is now back at 40%, according to Gallup. That’s the highest Trump has been since May 2017.
It’s also important to note that winning state legislative seats is not a direct comparison to Democratic attempts to re-take the House majority. The biggest difference is the raw number of votes cast. Less than 3,500 votes were cast in the Missouri special election; Revis won with less than 1,800.
In such a small universe of voters, turnout differences between the two party bases are hugely impactful. The larger the electorate, the harder it is for a small group of very dedicated supporters to swing a result.
Those caveats could explain how Democrats won one or two or even four Republican-held state legislative seats. It doesn’t explain how they have won 35 – in a little over a year, all over the country.
What explains those sort of across the board gains? A building Democratic wave built on resistance to Trump.
“Wake up Republicans & Conservatives,” tweeted former Illinois Republican Rep. Joe Walsh in the wake of the Missouri loss. “There’s a blue tsunami coming.”