What Tuesday’s elections taught us, and what they didn’t

GOP upbeat about California win; Democrats say wait until November

Tuesday’s special elections in California and Wisconsin, and the primaries in Nebraska, were conducted largely by mail.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Tuesday’s special elections in California and Wisconsin, and the primaries in Nebraska, were conducted largely by mail. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 13, 2020 at 7:22pm

It’s difficult to glean broader trends from a couple of special elections, but that didn’t stop both parties from drawing polar opposite lessons from Tuesday’s contests in California and Wisconsin.

In California’s competitive 25th District, Republican Mike Garcia, a Navy veteran, defeated Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith to take back a seat that flipped in 2018. Garcia was leading by 12 points when The Associated Press called the race Wednesday afternoon.

In Wisconsin, GOP state Sen. Tom Tiffany held on to an open Republican seat in the rural and deep-red 7th District when he beat Democrat Tricia Zunker, a local school board president, by 14 points.

Republicans cheered the results as signs that they will flip more House seats come November, pointing mainly to Garcia’s victory in a district President Donald Trump lost in 2016 and where Democrat Katie Hill unseated Republican Rep. Steve Knight two years later.

“Every indicator so far suggests Democrats should now be worried about losing more than just this district, which Hillary Clinton won by nearly 7 points, but also their House majority this fall,” said Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to House GOP leadership.

Democratic strategist Achim Bergmann countered that the electorate in November will be different, particularly in California’s 25th District around Los Angeles.

“I don’t think it means a hill of beans for the general,” he said.

Tuesday’s special elections, as well as primaries in Nebraska, did offer a preview of how voting unfolds in a pandemic. They also underscored that fundamentals of campaigning still matter. 

Here are four takeaways: 

1. Voters still voted 

Turnout is difficult to predict in special elections, and it’s especially difficult amid a global health crisis. But people still voted Tuesday, and, in some cases, at higher rates than expected. With 81 percent of precincts in, the AP said that more than 143,000 ballots had been counted in California’s 25th. That’s almost as many ballots as were cast in the March 3 special election primary, which totaled roughly 162,000. And that primary coincided with the state’s presidential primary. After the state told people to stay home to avoid the coronavirus, it sent every registered voter a ballot in the mail for the special election.

In Wisconsin, turnout was on par with turnout for the statewide April 7 elections, the AP reported. But a higher percentage of voters in the highly rural 7th district, which stretches from central to northwestern part of the state, voted in-person compared to the primary. 

And in Nebraska, voter turnout surpassed the 2016 primary election, with 39 percent of the state’s 1.2 million registered voters casting ballots. 

2. Candidates count

Republicans believe they had a superior candidate in Garcia, whose profile as a retired fighter pilot resonated in a district home to many veterans and where aerospace is a top industry. Smith also had a misstep when she appeared to joke about Garcia’s military service (she later apologized). Republicans said Wednesday that Garcia’s victory boded well for candidates with similar profiles in other races.

“I think you’re going to see real opportunities for Republicans to pick up seats in suburban areas like this one all over the country,” said Rob Simms, a former executive director at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

But Democrats believe their vulnerable House incumbents have cultivated strong, localized brands in their districts, and they’ll be difficult to defeat. 

Wisconsin’s 7th District is one of the most conservative in the state. Republican strategists said Tiffany, who owned and operated a local river cruise line with his wife for 20 years, was a perfect fit for the region. 

“In these special elections, candidates really matter a lot,” Wisconsin GOP strategist Mark Graul said. “He is really rooted in that Northwoods Wisconsin culture and community.”

Democrats admitted they saw the district as a long shot all along — Trump won it by 20 points in 2016. But it was important to them to show they could narrow that margin as they head into November. Zunker, an associate justice for the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court, did that, even though the long odds kept outside groups from pitching in. 

“Tricia Zunker is as good a candidate as we have had up there,” Wisconsin Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki said. 

She captured endorsements from celebrities such as Julianne Moore and Bradley Whitford and Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. She also raised a substantial $450,000. 

“The 7th Congressional District is the Trumpiest part of Trump country,” Zepecki said, arguing that Republicans should want their candidate to do better than 2016 margins.

“There is just no way to look at what happened last night and conclude that is what happened,” he said. 

Republicans said Democrats were grasping.

“When you lose that badly, I guess you are left saying 14 points isn’t all that much,” Graul said. 

3. Money matters

California’s 25th District attracted more outside spending, given the competitive nature of the seat, and Republicans outspent Democrats. Since the March 3 primary, outside groups spent a combined $2.4 million for Garcia and against Smith, while outside spending to bolster Smith totaled $1.5 million. Some Democratic outside groups sat out the special election, however, choosing to focus instead on November. 

Garcia and Smith raised and spent roughly the same amount of money, which has not been the case in other recent special elections where Democrats have significantly outspent their GOP opponents. Democrats noted Wednesday that they have a sizable financial advantage in other competitive House races, where vulnerable Democrats have built massive war chests

In Nebraska’s Omaha-area 2nd District, which saw the most competitive primary in the state, winning Democrat Kara Eastman raised more than double the amount raised by second-place finisher Ann Ashord, a lawyer married to former Rep. Brad Ashford. 

Eastman’s $849,000 haul allowed her to pivot when the coronavirus forced her to shut down her planned ground campaign. Instead, she started advertising on cable on April 1 — three weeks earlier than she had planned, according to the Omaha World-Herald — and started throwing money into social media. Ashford was forced to loan her campaign $200,000 of her own funds to keep up. 

4. Trump drives turnout

Democrats weren’t panicking after they appeared to lose the special election in California, mainly because they believe November’s electorate will look very different. 

Democrats had long expected the special election electorate to favor Republicans because Democratic base voters, including young people and people of color, are less likely to turn out in special elections and primaries. But Democrats are confident they will be motivated to turn out in November, especially to oppose Trump. 

Trump’s absence was also felt in Wisconsin, where Tiffany won by a smaller margin than the president did in 2016. While Democrats interpreted the smaller margin as a troubling sign for Republicans, one GOP strategist suggested Tiffany’s slightly smaller margin was because Trump himself wasn’t on the ballot.