Democrats celebrate special election win; experts advise caution

  • Ward 6 supervisor of the checklist Lynda Brock checks a woman's driver's license address against the city's list of registered voters during the special election for the District 9 state rep seat on Sept. 12. Caitlin Andrews

  • Vermont State Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley, left, speaks before the New Hampshire Ballot Law Commission with Andru Volinski, during a hearing, Tuesday Nov. 24, 2015, in Concord, N.H., about Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., eligibility to be on the Democratic presidential primary ballot. The complaint against Sanders said he cannot run in the Democratic primary because he is a longtime Independent. The commission unanimously supported Sanders’ eligibility challenged local attorney Andy Martin. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Saturday, September 16, 2017

The mood Tuesday, for Democrats, was triumphant: Their candidate Charlie St. Clair had just won a special election for New Hampshire’s Belknap County District 9, turning the seat from Republican to Democratic hands by a comfortable margin.

Party chairman Ray Buckley declared that the victory, the third “red-to-blue” flip in the New Hampshire legislature in 2017, “shows once again that Democrats can compete in any district in 2018.”

National prognosticators took notice too; pundits leapt to tie the win to a state legislative election in Oklahoma that night, in which a Democrat also scooped up a Republican-held seat by 20 points. The Sept. 12 victories were two of six red-to-blue flips in 2017; no elections have swung similarly to Republicans this year, a CNN article noted.

But while New Hampshire election experts agree that the Democratic party appears to be benefiting from shifting political winds, both nationally and within the Granite State, whether that shift will translate to significant gains in 2018 remains up in the air.

Even less clear, experts say, is whether the election of St. Clair – who won by 258 votes – is a true signifier on its own.

“A lot of funny things can happen in a small district – a lot of error, a lot of randomness,” said Joe Bafumi, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College.

At first glance, the results appear to justify Democratic enthusiasm. In his 11-point victory, St. Clair made strong gains against the Republican winner in 2016, Robert Fisher, who won that election by five points. That resulted in an overall 14-point swing for St. Clair. Meanwhile, Republican President Donald Trump won the district by 16 points last fall, against which St. Clair gained a comparative 27 points.

Democrats also touted the partisan makeup of the district, whose voters lean Republican by 12 percent, to accentuate the significance of St. Clair’s victory.

But historical numbers tell a more complex story. Election results dating to 2004 show the district has oscillated between parties regularly, with few trends in one political direction.

Since 2014, the seat had been held by Fisher, who stepped down earlier this year after being linked to the misogynistic “Red Pill” Reddit page. Fisher first won the seat by unseating Beth Arsenault, a Democrat who had taken the district in 2012.

President Barack Obama won the district in both of his elections, winning by three points in 2008 and by less than a percentage point in 2012. But in 2004, President George W. Bush beat John Kerry by a five-point margin.

Meanwhile, former Democratic governor John Lynch found wild success in 2006 and 2008, trouncing his Republican challengers by nearly 40 percentage points each time. But the district also swung to former Republican governor Craig Benson in 2004, to Republican candidate Walt Havenstein in 2014, and most recently to Gov. Chris Sununu, who won by 12 points.

Then there’s Tuesday’s turnout: 2,276, a pale shadow of general election figures for the district, which generally reaches 11,000.

Low turnout is a staple of special elections, according to Chris Galdieri, associate professor of politics at St. Anselm College in Manchester – and it’s one reason that it can be hard for political scientists to put much stock in a single night’s results.

Another factor in special elections, added Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire: the strengths or weaknesses of the particular candidates. Without a national race to steer the electorate in any particular partisan direction, “quality of candidate is important,” he said.

St. Clair, as it happens, is a long-time organizer of the Laconia Bike Week, and helped champion the relocation of the New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival from Keene to Laconia two years ago – strong area bona fides in a locally focused race.

Bafumi added that the few statehouse special elections held across the country are likely insufficient to definitely prove a trend.

“You’d want to look at a bunch of them – you’d want to look at like 30 of them,” he said.

But despite strong caveats, experts said the string of Democratic victories – both within New Hampshire and beyond – are nonetheless worth paying attention to.

“If I were (House Democratic Leader) Steve Shurtleff, I wouldn’t be measuring the drapes in the Speaker’s office,” Galdieri said. “But I would be pretty confident that there would be more Democrats in the legislature next year than this year.”