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A lot seems to be going poorly for Democrats right now, including President Biden’s sinking approval ratings and the results of this month’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey.
But two obscure special elections in Ohio’s 11th and 15th congressional districts, where Democrats and Republicans each retained long-held seats, revealed a possible bright spot for Democrats and faintly signaled that political conditions may not be as dire for Democrats as they seem.
Neither race received much national attention. Neither race was especially competitive. And neither had a high turnout.
But unlike in the flashier races for Virginia and New Jersey governor, the two Democratic candidates in the Ohio congressional races ran about as well as Democrats usually do. They ran far closer to the party’s recent benchmarks, including Mr. Biden’s showing in the last presidential election, than Democrats did in Virginia, where Terry McAuliffe lost to the Republican, Glenn Youngkin, and in New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, won by a slim margin.
While it would be a mistake to read too much into these two low-profile affairs, it would also be a mistake to ignore them.
The two House races didn’t receive much attention for a simple reason: Neither party had any reason to contest them. Ohio’s 11th District is overwhelmingly Democratic, and the 15th is firmly Republican.
Yet in both races, the Democratic House candidates ran only three percentage points behind Biden’s showing against former President Donald Trump in last year’s election. The margin is nothing for Democrats to brag about, but it’s simply not the same as what they experienced in Virginia and New Jersey, where the Republican candidates ran 12 and 13 points ahead of Mr. Trump.
Of the two districts, Ohio’s 15th is more competitive — and the most representative of next year’s battlegrounds. It stretches from the suburbs around Columbus to the conservative working-class countryside of south-central Ohio. Unlike the House battlegrounds, this is not a district where Democrats have a chance to prevail, even under favorable circumstances: Mr. Trump won the district by 14 points while the incumbent Republican, Steve Stivers, won it by 27 points last November.
But despite a more favorable national political environment, Mike Carey, a Trump-endorsed Republican and coal lobbyist, defeated Allison Russo, a Democratic state representative, by a fairly typical 17-point margin — a bit better than Trump, and quite a bit worse than Mr. Stivers.
While the results of the Virginia election spurred talk that the Democratic Party’s leftward lurch on race and cultural issues might be hurting the Democrats in the suburbs, Ms. Russo won 55 percent of the vote in the Franklin County portion of the district, home to the Columbus suburbs, nearly matching the 56 percent won by Mr. Biden.
Ohio’s 11th District is even less competitive. The majority-Black district, which snakes from Cleveland to Akron, favored Mr. Biden by a whopping 61 points last November. The previous Democratic representative, Marcia Fudge, who is now the secretary of housing and urban development, won by 60 points. The result was similar this time: Shontel Brown, the establishment-backed Democrat who narrowly defeated the progressive favorite Nina Turner in an August primary, won by 58 points.
It might seem odd to draw attention to the results of uncompetitive races, but special congressional election results often do a decent job of foreshadowing the outcome of the next midterm elections. Four years ago, special elections were one of the first signs of Democratic strength after Mr. Trump was elected president. So far this cycle, other special election results have tended to resemble the modest Republican gains in Ohio more than the significant G.O.P. swings in Virginia and New Jersey.
Another reason to pay attention is that the special congressional elections are contests for federal office, not state or local government.
While politics has become increasingly nationalized in recent years, it remains quite common for voters to split their tickets and back the other party in down-ballot races for governor or other local offices. Maryland and Massachusetts elected Republican governors in 2018, despite the so-called blue wave that year. Local issues, like education or property taxes, naturally play a much bigger role than they do in federal contests. And it is much easier for a relatively moderate candidate for local office to shed the baggage of the national party. After all, a vote for Youngkin as governor of Virginia is not a vote to make Kevin McCarthy the House speaker or Mitch McConnell the Senate majority leader.
Democrats and Republicans were deadlocked on the generic congressional ballot, a poll question asking whether voters would back a Democrat or Republican for Congress. Historically, the measure tracks well with the eventual House national vote. On average, Republicans lead by less than a percentage point, according to FiveThirtyEight — they took the lead while I wrote this newsletter.
A roughly tied House national vote would most likely mean clear Republican control of the chamber, thanks to partisan gerrymandering and the tendency for Democrats to win lopsided margins in reliably Democratic areas. But it would be a much closer race than one might guess based on Virginia and New Jersey.
And it would be roughly in line with the results in Ohio: a four-point shift to the Republicans, compared to Biden’s four-point win in the national vote.
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