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What Delaware’s 10th Senatorial District Means

February 25, 2017

An important election was held today in Delaware, the first in the country since Donald Trump took up part-time residency in the White House. The election, a special election to fill a vacancy in the tenth state senatorial district, was won by Democrat Stephanie Hansen, an environmental lawyer and former president of the New Castle County Council.

The state Senate seat in question was held by Bethany Hall-Long until January 17, when she became Delaware’s lieutenant governor. Hall-Long was first elected to the seat in 2008.

The tenth district is a suburban district in northwestern Delaware, extending from the south of Newark to the towns of Odessa and Middletown. The district leans distinctly Democratic, so it is not an especially big deal that the Democratic candidate won today’s election. What is a big deal is that Hansen beat her Republican opponent by a much larger margin than Hall-Long beat the same Republican in 2014.

In 2014, Hall-Long beat Republican John Marino, a realtor and retired police officer, by just over two percent of the votes cast: 6,230 to 5,963, or 51.1 percent to 48.9 percent. Returns as of 9:30 tonight, with all 16 precincts reporting, show Hansen beating Marino by 7,314 to 5,127, or 58.1 percent to 40.8 percent.

By itself, of course, a special election for a Delaware state Senate seat has no national importance. But today’s special election has two-fold national importance.

First, Delaware is one of only six states where Democrats control the governor’s mansion and both legislative houses. Had Marino won today’s election, the Delaware Senate would have slipped from Democratic to Republican control, leaving only five of fifty states fully controlled by Democrats. (Republicans fully control 25 states, their most since 1925.) Marino campaigned hard on the need for “balance” – the need to end Democratic one-party rule in Delaware – but voters in the tenth Senate district slammed the door on “balance.”

Second, today’s special election was the first electoral test of voter reaction to the Trump presidency. Both parties poured money into the race – total spending will certainly exceed $1 million, about 20 times what a Delaware state Senate race ordinarily costs. Spending for Hansen exceeded spending for Marino by three or four to one.

Voter turnout was not nearly as heavy as turnout in the tenth district for a presidential election, but still was substantial, especially given that there was nothing else on the ballot. Today 12,171 votes were cast, compared to 12,193 in the state Senate race in 2014 – which was not a special election but a state-wide general election in which one of the state’s U.S. senators was up for re-election. And Hansen’s margin of victory was considerable – almost eight times greater than Hall-Long’s margin in 2014. Given very similar turnout numbers and the same Republican candidate in both races, and given no obvious reason that Hansen would ordinarily out-poll Hall-Long by so much, the results suggest at least the possibility of a reaction against the Republican Party in Washington.

This is an off-year in American elections: in 2017, only two governors and three state legislative houses are up for election. But before we get to any of that, we’ll have at least four special elections for Congressional seats:

  • April 4, to fill the Congressional seat vacated by Xavier Becerra, who became California attorney general. The district has been held by Democrats since 1983.
  • April 11, to fill the seat vacated by Mike Pompeo when he became director of the CIA. This seat has been held by Republicans since 1995.
  • April 18, for the seat vacated by Tom Price to become secretary of health and human services. The seat has been Republican since 1979; it was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s seat.
  • June 20, to fill the vacancy created when John Mulvaney became OMB director. The seat has been Republican since 2011.
  • If Montana Republican Ryan Zinke is confirmed as secretary of the interior, a special election will have to be held for that seat, which is state-wide, and has been held by Republicans since 1997.

The importance of these special elections is unlikely to be their winners. Barring something extraordinary, the incumbent party is likely to hold each of those seats. The importance of the special elections is likely to be what they reveal about popular reaction to the Republican Party now headed by President Trump.

In the off-year of 2017, only two states are holding regular elections in November. In New Jersey, the governor and both houses of the legislature are up. Republican Governor Chris Christie is term-limited, and the seat is certain to be hard-fought with national-level attention. As of now, electoral new-comer Phil Murphy is leading the Democratic field, and Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno is leading the Republican field – although hyper-kinetic 1980s Saturday Night Live star Joe Piscopo is considering a Republican primary run.

It’s unlikely that Republicans will be able to take over either house of the New Jersey legislature, but again the importance of the legislative elections lies in what they tell us about popular reaction to Trump’s Republicans.

In Virginia, Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe is term-limited, and the lower house of the legislature is also up. Several viable candidates are contesting the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, but on the Republican side a clear early lead has gone to former Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie. All of the viable Democratic candidates are leading Gillespie in early polling. Interesting, at least, and potentially quite important, is the fact that every Democrat’s poll standings jumped after the November 2016 election – in the case of Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, for instance, he led in no poll taken before Trump won; he has led in three of four polls taken after Trump won.

With Republicans holding 66 of 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, it’s beyond unlikely that the chamber will flip to Democrats in November. Again, the importance of the legislative vote will be in any indication it gives of national sentiment.

Sixteen of our largest 100 cities hold mayoral elections this November. Fourteen of the incumbents are Democrats; three (Albuquerque, Miami and San Bernardino) are Republicans, although of those only the mayor of San Bernardino is running for re-election.

There is plenty of evidence of popular discontent with President Trump in particular and with national Republicans in general. Republican senators and representatives are spending their Congressional recess getting yelled at by some very angry constituents. Anti-Trump marchers in Washington on the day after Trump was inaugurated far outnumbered pro-Trump inaugural attendees. Popular opposition to Trump’s executive order travel ban was impressive, probably unparalleled in intensity and focus since the Vietnam War protests. Trump’s approval ratings are lower than any previous president’s this early in his administration – a polling comparison that is possible back to Dwight Eisenhower’s early presidency. Trump’s approval ratings one month in are literally about half of Barack Obama’s approval ratings in February 2009.

The question for 2017 is whether these signs of discontent will translate to the voting booth. If in 2017 the Congressional special elections, the state-wide elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and the mayoral elections around the country show a movement away from Republicans, and away from Trump, then Republicans will be in serious trouble in 2018. On the other hand, if 2017 is a status quo election year – or worse, if 2017 shows movement toward Republicans – then Democrats are in for a very long, hard Trump tenure.

 

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