Special election results in red congressional districts continue to suggest ominous news for Republicans in the fall midterms, even when their candidates win.

On Tuesday, Republican Debbie Lesko beat her Democratic opponent, Hiral Tipirneni, to become the new representative for Arizona’s 8th Congressional district, which comprises a swathe of suburban Phoenix. (The vacancy was left by the resignation of former Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned in December amid sexual harassment allegations.) But the seat was considered a solid lock for any Republican candidate, and Lesko’s 5 percent margin of victory was far smaller than the 21 percent margin by which Donald Trump won the district in 2016.


The results — like those of other special elections in recent months — suggest that Republicans head into the midterms at a considerable disadvantage. That will surely continue to buoy Democrats in places like Arkansas’s 2nd Congressional District, in which four contenders are jostling to win the May 22nd Democratic primary. Republican Rep. French Hill currently holds the seat.

FiveThirtyEight explains that the results in Arizona bear consideration in part because the race between Lesko and Tipirneni was so generic. Unlike, say, the extraordinary Senate race in Alabama late last year, in which Republican Roy Moore was defeated by Democrat Doug Jones, neither candidate was particularly remarkable. Though the Arizona’s district’s leftward swing wasn’t nearly large enough for the Dems to win, it reinforces the notion that Democratic candidates can be competitive this cycle even in very red districts.


I would add two qualifications. First, be wary of assuming that all red districts track the same trends; voters in Conway, Benton and Cabot may not behave the same as those in suburban Phoenix and Pittsburgh. FiveThirtyEight includes a helpful table that follows Democratic “overperformance” in recent special elections — that is, the degree to which Dems did better than expected when compared to the Republican margin in the 2016 and 2012 presidential elections. Democrats have gotten a boost in every race — but the size of the swing has varied tremendously from district to district. In Georgia’s 6th district race in the Atlanta suburbs last June, Democrat Jon Ossof only performed 6 percent better than expected. Connor Lamb, meanwhile, achieved a 22 percent swing in his surprise upset in March in Pennsylvania’s 18th district. Arkansas, like every state, is its own creature.

The second caveat is that the midterms are a long ways away, and while Democrats head into the elections with Trump-fueled enthusiasm on their side, that gap may narrow between now and November. As FiveThirtyEIght notes, voters show less enthusiasm when presented with a “generic ballot” asking them to choose between the two parties:


The bigger question is what to make of the disparity between the overwhelming swing toward Democrats so far in special election results — which would imply a Democratic wave on par with the historic Republican years of 1994 and 2010 — and the considerably more modest one suggested by the generic congressional ballot, which shows Democrats ahead by only 7 points and implies that the battle for House control is roughly a toss-up.1One plausible answer is that the generic ballot will shift further toward Democrats once voters become more engaged with the campaign in their respective districts and pollsters switch over to likely voter models. Still, both the generic ballot and special election results (when taken in the aggregate) are fairly reliable indicators. Rather than choosing between them, it’s best to consider both. That means entertaining a wide range of scenarios that run between Republicans narrowly holding onto the House and an epic Democratic wave.