GOP Reverses Trends with Special Election Victories

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March 8, 2019

The Republican Party has flipped four state legislative seats from Democratic control since the start of 2019, reversing political trends witnessed over the past two years.

On Tuesday, Republicans won a special election for the Kentucky state senate in a district where more than 60 percent of voters are registered Democrats, as reported by The Hill. The Republican nominee, Philip Wheeler, bested his opponent, Democrat Darrell Pugh, by a 52-to-48 percent margin.

The special election for the eastern-Kentucky district followed the resignation of long-term incumbent Ray Jones, who was elected to a local judgeship. Jones, who served as the state senate's minority leader prior to his departure, won reelection in 2016 with more than 70 percent of the vote. At the same time, President Donald Trump received nearly 80 percent of the vote in the district over former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

The race, which saw both candidates touting their pro-life, pro-coal, and pro-Second Amendment credentials, was widely painted as a referendum on incumbent Republican governor Matt Bevin. The GOP's strong showing in the eastern-Kentucky bolsters Bevin, who has seen a rise in his unpopularity rating, as he prepares to seek reelection to a second term this year.

Wheeler's victory in Kentucky builds upon gains the GOP has made in special elections for legislative districts in Minnesota and Connecticut in February. Overall, the trends reverse those witnessed since the end of the 2016 presidential campaign. In between 2017 and 2018, Democrats flipped more than 40 state legislative seats from Republican control through special elections. The gains occurred in purple states like Wisconsin and Missouri as well as deep-red states like Oklahoma and South Carolina.

As previously reported by the Washington Free Beacon, a special election for the Texas state senate was a bright spot for Republicans in 2018. In that race, the Republican nominee upset a former Democratic congressman in a district that had not voted GOP since the era of Reconstruction.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, which helps recruit and fundraise for state legislative candidates, pointed to the GOP's grassroots infrastructure as being responsible for the party's reversal of fortune.

"If the shoe were on the other foot, this would be the time Democrats would be lining up the stories of doom for Republicans in 2019 with Democrat-friendly press outlets," said Matt Walter, the RSLC's president, in a statement. "Instead, Republicans are congratulating Phillip Wheeler for building on the successes of the GOP over the past decade at the state level, putting an exclamation point on Republicans’ ability to win challenging elections, while Democrats continue to litigate and rig the system for political advantage."

"Simply put, Republicans run better candidates who better represent the interests of their districts, and good policy always yields good politics," he added.