Special elections favor disgruntled Democrats, not majority

Though the American congressional system is generally dependable when it comes to representatives serving out their terms, sometimes special elections are required to fill seats. This is normal. In Oklahoma, however, this year has seen (and will continue to see) an unusually high number of special elections following the 2016 general election. This onslaught of special elections has prompted commentators in Oklahoma and around the country to ask whether or not these elections can be seen as a good indicator of the political pulse of the country.
First, it’s important to reiterate why we’re having these special elections to begin with. Four of the eight special elections were to fill seats that were vacated because of ethical investigations into the representative who held the seat. Only one of those four was not being accused of a sexual crime. Ralph Shortey, a Republican serving the Senate district 44, resigned after being charged with engaging in child prostitution. Dan Kirby, a Republican from the House 75th district, resigned for inappropriate conduct with legislative assistants. Bryce Marlatt, a Republican serving the Senate 27th district, recently resigned after being booked for sexual assault in Oklahoma County. Corruption and criminal behavior in state legislatures is often overlooked as state legislators themselves are often overlooked. This sort of electoral ignorance cannot be allowed to continue to fester and representatives must be held liable for their actions both legally and in the voting booth.
But aside from the toxic culture of the legislature, seven of these eight open seats did something remarkable. They flipped from Republican-held to Democrat-held; some of them, for the first time in decades.
This has prompted people to ask what’s happening in Oklahoma politics. Is Oklahoma, one of the reddest of the red states, slowly starting to bleed blue? Has President Trump’s unpopularity delivered a large enough death blow to the GOP establishment that not even perpetually Republican state like Oklahoma can stay afloat?
Not quite. Before Democrats get excited about Oklahoma special elections, it’s important to look at the voter turnout. Special elections, let alone special elections for state legislators in a non-election year, enjoy quite low voter turnout rates.
While rates for these specific elections are not currently available, voter turnout for special elections tend to be around 20 percent. In small districts that can mean only a handful of people.
It is true, however, that the President has played a role in these elections. While only a handful of people may be voting in these elections, a divisive President has ensured that these voters are largely Democrats. The Trump administration has energized the left, leading them to perform better in smaller elections, elections that are seen as low- stakes. It’s important to make the distinction between an energized Democratic party and a true referendum on the Trump presidency.
What will serve as a referendum, then, is the 2018 gubernatorial race and the midterm elections. If Oklahoma elects a Democrat governor, then it can be said that the GOP establishment may be starting to shake in Oklahoma. If other gubernatorial elections act in a similar way across the country, then it might be time for the Trump administration to look at how it impacts it’s party’s legacy. Elections for national Congressman have historically been a reliable way of listening to the pulse of the country; the House of Representatives reinvents itself every two years for that reason. If Oklahoma flips those congressional seats, then it’s fair to start saying we have a new phenomenon on our hands.
Another interesting thing to look at in the state special elections is that, in the face of an energized Democratic party, the Republicans who currently hold office at the state level seem to be losing steam. While half the resigning legislators were due to criminal or ethical concerns, three of the remaining four resigned to pursue their private sector careers. It may very well be that professional politics is simply not worth the fight anymore in an increasingly divisive and toxic political climate. Republicans seem to be taking on water quickly, and rather than stay and help bail out the boat, senators and representatives are simply abandoning ship.
Special elections are, by definition, an anomaly in the political system. It is, therefore, dangerous to characterize them as true referendums to larger political trends. They can be tools to look for future outcomes, but labelling them accurate solo predictors is simply not true. For that, you need to look to an election with a larger electorate behind it. If you want to see how the Trump administration or the Republican party are faring after the 2016 election, wait for the 2018 midterm and gubernatorial races.

Post Author: Amanda Amos