Republicans Are Losing Ground to Democrats Early in the Election Cycle — That’s Completely Normal

Early special election winners often underperform their predecessors

CIA Director Mike Pompeo resigned from the House to take on his new post in the Trump administration. His former Kansas seat was filled last night by a fellow Republican, but the race was much tighter than when Pompeo won re-election last fall. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Fueled by a swelling fervor against President Donald Trump, Democrats are putting up tougher-than-expected fights against special election opponents in Republican strongholds — something that’s happened fairly regularly in recent history.

Since Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992, there have been seven House special elections before or during the first 100 days of a president’s term. In each of them, the district stuck with the same party its voters chose during the previous year’s general election. But only once did the winning candidate in the special election get a higher percentage of the vote than their party’s candidate in the preceding November election.

The trend is holding true this year, too. In the race to fill CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s former House seat in Kansas’ 4th District, Republican Ron Estes underperformed Pompeo on Tuesday night, garnering 53 percent of the vote. That was 8 percentage points less than what Pompeo earned in November. Estes prevailed over Democratic lawyer James Thompson, who garnered 46 percent of the vote. 

It’s also unlikely that Georgia Republicans will surpass former Rep. Tom Price’s showing in the 2016 election cycle. The special election open primary for Price’s vacant 6th District seat is next week. Trump tapped the onetime House Budget chairman for Health and Human Services secretary after he won re-election with 62 percent of the vote.

But in the race to replace Price, a crowded field of Republicans has turned to intraparty attacks, and individually, they trail the top Democrat in the race — former congressional aide Jon Ossoff — by large margins. Ossoff is polling at about 40 percent in the district, according to a poll by a local Fox affiliate — 20 points ahead of his closest GOP opponent.

Though the number of candidates in the Georgia race makes it difficult to compare margins with Price’s win last fall, Ossoff’s proximity to the 50 percent marker shows how much Democrats have improved their position in that district since last year’s election.


There are a few reasons that could explain why special election candidates have generally not performed as well as their party did in preceding general elections. Turnout, for one, is generally lower in special elections, so top-of-the-ticket boosts wouldn’t carry over to the specials. And with fewer races to focus on, outside spending or an endorsement from the president can shift the dynamic in these otherwise unremarkable congressional races. Candidates in special elections also don’t have the advantages held by incumbents.

It is, however, worth considering there are few early special elections to draw examples from.

The only time since at least 1993 that a candidate — Democrat or Republican — has outperformed their party this early in the two-year election cycle was following Obama’s re-election victory, in the special election to replace Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. The Illinois Democrat left office amid an ethics investigation after earning 63 percent in 2012. His successor, Rep. Robin Kelly, took 71 percent of the vote in the majority black, Chicago-area district. 

Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.