Results in Minnesota special election conflict with GOP 'red wave' predictions

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Republicans have under-performed in early elections in multiple districts, signalling that a so-called 'red wave' for the GOP is unlikely.

Republicans in Minnesota squeaked out a win — but only narrowly — in a special election for Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, a seat they already held, last night. GOP nominee Brad Finstead won Democrat Jeff Ettinger by a slim 4-point margin to complete the term of Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-MN), who passed away in February.

While Republicans did ultimately win the seat, experts say Finstead's margin of victory shows some troubling signs for the GOP — and detract from the predictions that a so-called "red wave" is coming in November.

That's because Minnesota's 1st District is a precinct that President Donald Trump carried by 10 points in 2020, according to data from Daily Kos Elections. That means Finstead's victory is a 6-point under-performance from Trump's — not something analysts expect to see in a "wave" election year, when one party sees sweeping wins.

Republicans have been predicting a "red wave" or "tsunami" for months, pointing to President Joe Biden's sinking approval rating or polls that purport to show the party that voters want to see controlling Congress, otherwise known as "generic ballots." Yet Finstead's under-performance is part of a growing trend for Republicans in a different direction, with the party's candidates not performing as well as expected following the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The court's ruling is unpopular with Democratic and independent voters, and has energized the Democratic base.

For example, Democratic turnout was through the roof in Kansas' Aug. 2 primary, in which voters handily defeated a state constitutional amendment that would have paved the way for abortion to be banned in the state. Another special election, held in June for a House seat in Nebraska, had similar underwhelming results for Republicans. In that race, the GOP candidate Mike Flood narrowly beat his Democrat opponent, explicitly pro-choice candidate Patty Brooks, by a lower margin than Trump won the district with in 2020.

"We're no longer living in a political environment as pro-GOP as November 2021," Dave Wasserman, a political handicapper with the Cook Political Report, said in a tweet noting the two results today.

"Solid special election performance for Democrats in #MN01 - the Democrat lost by 4 points in a district that Biden lost by 10 points," Ryan Matsumoto, a contributing analyst with the nonpartisan political handicapping outlet Inside Elections, also tweeted. "This election, the #NE01 election in June, and generic ballot polls paint a much better picture for Democrats than Biden's approval rating alone."

Recent history shows that a political party's performance in special elections is a good indicator of how that party will perform in the general election that cycle. In the 2018 cycle — when Democrats rode a so-called "blue wave" to victory, winning back control of the House for the first time in nearly a decade — Democrats over-performed Hillary Clinton's margins in special elections.

"Special elections in 2017 were one of the first signs that Democrats were going to have a really good 2018," FiveThirtyEight wrote after the 2018 election.

"The party’s candidates were consistently outperforming the baseline partisanship of their districts in both federal and state-level special elections, something that tends to foreshadow the national political environment in the next congressional election," FiveThirtyEight analyst Nathaniel Rakich reported at the time.

Ultimately, the latest data from special elections — and the fact that the "generic ballot" has moved toward Democrats after the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson ruling overturning Roe — has led political handicappers to believe the anticipated "red wave" may have ebbed before the general election.

"Democrats, aided by events such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the January 6th congressional hearings, Donald Trump’s continued attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and bitter and bruising GOP primaries, have eaten into the GOP advantage," Wasserman and his fellow Cook Political Report analysts Amy Walter and Jessica Taylor wrote Wednesday morning.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.