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MEMORANDUM: After GA-06, the Next Fights are at the State Level

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TO: Interested Parties  

FROM: Elisabeth Pearson, DGA

RE: Special election results

After GA-06, the Next Fights are at the State Level

With the 2017 special election season coming to a close, the electoral focus now shifts to the next battles ahead: Virginia and New Jersey’s gubernatorial elections in November.

Democrats over-performed in four Congressional special elections this year in seats with Cook PVI scores of R+8, R+9, R+11, and R+15.

For the rest of 2017, the field shifts to more Democratic terrain: Virginia and New Jersey have PVI scores of D+1 and D+7 respectively. In both states, Democratic primary turnout vastly surpassed Republican turnout. Meanwhile, Republicans carry the baggage of an unpopular brand. Donald Trump’s approval ratings are 36% in Virginia and 28% in New Jersey; while Gov. Chris Christie’s approval is an unfathomably bad 15%.

And that trend will continue for 2018: 24 of the 36 gubernatorial races occurring in 2018 will take place in states more favorable to Democrats than Georgia’s 6th Congressional District (according to PVI scores).

As we pivot towards November elections, there are three main lessons from the first half of the year:

  1. Democrats are enthusiastic – Democratic turnout was more than double Republican turnout in New Jersey, and Democrats outpaced Republicans by 180,000 votes in the open Virginia primary. Meanwhile, Democrats significantly over-performed in four Congressional special elections.
  2. State-level elections will take on more importance – In Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, Democratic efforts were not enough to overcome maps that were drawn by a Republican legislature and Republican governor in 2011. In GA-06, Republicans openly bragged about how they engineered the map in their favor. Across the country, Democrats realize that in order to secure a lasting majority in the House, we need to elect governors with veto power for the 2021 redistricting process. The majority of those key gubernatorial elections for redistricting – in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia – will take place over the next 2 years.
  3. Dems will be on offense in 2018 gov. races – Buoyed by Democratic enthusiasm and Trump’s approval ratings, Democrats are poised to go on the offense in 2018 governors’ races. Republicans are defending 26 seats in 2018, while Democrats defend just 9. Republicans will be forced to defend 8 seats in states that Clinton won and 5 additional seats in states that Obama won twice.

Democratic Enthusiasm Bodes Well for NJ/VA in 2017

After Georgia, all eyes turn to New Jersey and Virginia as the next major electoral tests of 2017. The signs are already good for Democrats, paralleling Democratic overperformance in special elections.

In both Democratic gubernatorial primaries, voters turned out in record numbers, blowing Republicans out of the water. In Virginia’s open primary, more than 542,000 Democrats turned out to vote, compared to just 366,000 Republicans. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, 493,000 Dems voted – more than double the 240,000 Republicans who turned out. In Virginia, Ed Gillespie finished 80,000 votes behind Democratic runner-up Tom Perriello.

Both Ralph Northam and Phil Murphy vastly outperformed their Republican opponents in pure totals and vote share of their respective primaries. They head into their general elections with a united base supporting them. In Virginia particularly, former RNC chair and career lobbyist Ed Gillespie continues to struggle to rally the Trump coalition behind his campaign. As the GOP debates how to deal with Trump and his supporters, Democrats can focus on delivering their message to a general election audience.

Another similarity between the two states is President Trump’s terrible approval numbers. Trump lost both states last November and his numbers have only dwindled further since taking office. In Virginia, poll after poll after poll has shown his approval hovering in the mid-30s. It’s even worse in New Jersey. A recent Fairleigh-Dickinson University poll shows him at just 28 percent. Northam and Murphy will harness this energy as candidates who can fight back Washington overreach. Their opponents, Ed Gillespie and Kim Guadagno, have committed to campaign with Trump and embraced his policies in their primaries.

State Level Elections Will Take on More Importance

Despite significant Democratic investment, several House seats have proven difficult to win because of their fundamental makeup. In states like Georgia and South Carolina, Republican legislatures and governors drew lines in 2011 to intentionally preserve Republican majorities.

While Democrats have plenty of targets of opportunity to gain House seats in 2018, they simultaneously need to invest in electing state leaders who can prevent a repeat of the 2011 Republican gerrymander.

In 2011, Republicans had full control over drawing more than 200 Congressional seats, while Democrats had full control of just 44. That produced unbalanced maps in states like Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Pennsylvania: All swing states with House delegations that range from 64 to 75% Republican. In many of these states, winning back the governorship is the best path back to fair maps in 2021.

For the long-term future of the Democratic Party, Democrats must win key governors’ races that impact redistricting. That’s why Democratic national leaders and donors have put increasing focus on governors’ races – a trend that will only accelerate now that special elections have concluded.

 2018: Dems on Offense Around the Country

There are 36 more races in 2018 and Democrats already have a strong bench of candidates lining up to run. Democrats are playing defense in many of the Senate and House races, but the gubernatorial map is far more favorable.  24 of the 36 states up in 2018 have more Democratic PVIs than Georgia’s 6th CD. Those states are: AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, GA, HI, IL, IA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, NV, NH, NM, NY, OH, OR, PA, RI, VT and WI.

Republicans are defending 26 of the 36 seats, including 9 in states that Clinton won in 2016. 13 of those Republican seats are open, which are historically easier to win than beating an incumbent. Many of the major states critical to redistricting, like Ohio, Michigan, and Florida have open Republican seats. And nine of the ten largest states are holding governor elections. There is unprecedented opportunity to make gains, particularly in states that greatly contribute to the current Republican House majority. 

Democrats already have a modern record 60 candidates running, ensuring there will be strong candidates in general election campaigns everywhere.

Meanwhile, we are already seeing Republicans mimicking President Trump to appeal to their conservative primary electorates. In Ohio, Rep. Jim Renacci has hired former Trump campaign staffers. He is running as an outsider businessman on an “Ohio First” platform. In Florida, Adam Putnam also coopted Trump’s slogan – in this case, “Florida First” – and slams trade agreements. And in Michigan, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley are already angling to get Trump’s endorsement.

Courting the Trump vote might be an effective primary strategy, but as long as the president remains so unpopular, it should give Republicans a hard time appealing to general election voters. Trump’s numbers are already sagging in swing states he carried in November. He’s polled at 35 percent in Michigan, 35 percent in Florida, and 32 percent in Pennsylvania. 

Collectively, this means major targets of opportunity starting in 2017, and continuing into 2018. As the political world leaves this special election season, the electoral focus over the next 18 months will increasing turn towards the states and the governors who lead them.