But what does this actually tell us?
There was a time when such special elections were presented as harbingers of electoral waves to come. And they were…sometimes. Some great examples:
- In 2005 and 2006, Democrats were surprisingly competitive for a few conservative-leaning seats in California and Ohio, just before winning both the House and the Senate.
- In 2008, a trio of shock Democratic wins — two in the Deep South and one for former President Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) seat — presaged the Democrats would win back the White House.
- In 2010, it was a shock GOP victory in Hawaii, before Republicans retook the House.
- In 2011, current New York Governor Kathy Hochul (D) won an upstate special election ahead of Barack Obama’s re-election.
- In 2018, it was Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory in conservative western Pennsylvania, before Democrats retook the House.
Mixed, however, there were less telling results. Earlier in the 2010 cycle, Democrats also won a seat. The Republicans won one in New York, of all places, at the start of the 2012 cycle. And the Democrats actually took control of a seat in California in 2020 – just before losing the White House. So a big recovery does not make an election cycle. But it can be a sign.
There’s no doubt that the South Texas result is a significant victory for the GOP, given the particularities of that district. The Democrats have controlled the Rio Grande Valley for more than a century. And Republicans picked a district that is both the second most Hispanic in the nation (84%) and went to Joe Biden by four points.
Republicans have been winning in the region for years, with most of Donald Trump’s biggest gains between the 2016 and 2020 elections coming in heavily Hispanic counties in southern Texas and southern Florida. But that had yet to translate into the taking of heavily Hispanic Democratic congressional seats. As The Post’s Arelis R. Hernández and Michael Scherer wrote in February, Republicans have continued to erode longstanding Democratic dominance in South Texas. This quarter went for Biden by just four points, but in 2012 and 2016 he went blue by more than 20 points.
To complicate matters somewhat when it comes to discerning what Tuesday’s race portends is that the National Democrats haven’t really tried hard. The Texas congressional map is being revised, and in November this district will 1) be more heavily Democratic and 2) feature incumbent Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D) on the ballot. (The leading Democratic candidate in that race, Dan Sanchez, was only running for the remainder of the current term.) So there wasn’t as much at stake as there would be in a normal special election.
Essentially, the Democrats’ incentives here would have been to salvage a vote for the next few months, avoid forcing Gonzalez to run against another incumbent and avoid an embarrassing loss. In the end, National Democrats lost a modest amount on campaign ads over the past week, which Sanchez said was too little, too late. And, indeed, it has been vastly overtaken and overtaken on the airwaves.
Potentially due in part to the low stakes, turnout has also been extremely low – with less than 29,000 votes counted so far. For comparison, over 200,000 voted in the same race in 2020 and over 140,000 voted midterm in 2018. That’s a huge drop – bigger than you usually see, even in 2018. special elections.
Bottom line: Flores’ victory is unambiguously a good sign for Republicans, though it may be oversold as a predictor of things to come. But we already knew the Republicans were in a pretty good position, because of how well they’re doing on the generic ballot.
If there’s one thing this result could speak to, it backs up polling that suggests Republicans are still winning with Hispanic voters. Some surveys have shown Republicans closing the gap between this demographic on the generic ballot, but typically the sample sizes are very small, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions.
A special election in 1 of 435 ridings is a very small sample in its own way. But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen genuine evidence that Republicans are winning with Hispanics or in South Texas in recent times. And all caveats included, it’s an inauspicious development for a Democratic Party already looking at a tough November.