By now you know that most pundits are saying that the “blue wave” was more of a ripple in Kentucky, with Dems only picking netting a few extra seats in the House, and actually losing one seat in the Senate. But what do you see when you actually dig into the numbers?
Here at Forward Kentucky, we are big on data: facts and numbers. And, we like getting past the hot takes and finding out what the data actually says. And if you do that for Tuesday’s House races, you learn that things are a little better for Kentucky Democrats than they seem on the surface.
Let’s take a look.
Setting the table for the 2018 midterms
For anyone unfamiliar with how we got here, a recap:
- The KY House had been moving toward Republican control for some time, as the state gradually became more and more red. Still, even in the 2014 election, Dems still held a small majority in the House. This meant that the Republican Senate had to work with them to get anything passed. On the one hand, this meant some gridlock; on the other hand, it meant collaboration.
- Along with this decades-long control of at least one branch of state government came a state party that had become increasingly complacent. The bench was almost non-existent, and the party depended on having a Democratic governor for much of its fund-raising and organization.
- Then came the Trump Tsunami of 2016. The Republicans swept to control of the House by a large, large margin, surprising even themselves. The Democratic party in Kentucky was at a low, low ebb.
- New party leadership was chosen the following year, with a simple goal: rebuild the party and win elections. This would obviously include building out the bench.
- Fortunately for the party, the actions of both Trump and the Bevin administration (and the Republicans) led to a resistance backlash and a resurgence of activism, including calls to “run for something.”
Note that this backstory, and this analysis, are not meant as either a criticism or a defense of the job the KDP has done. It is merely to provide some context for anyone who, say, just moved here. 😊
What the 2018 midterm numbers say
Our analysis is based on the 100 House seats that are up every two years. These are the seats that are closest to the local conditions and yet are also state-wide. And, the number 100 makes it easy to grasp the stats.
“You can’t win if you don’t play.” That is a basic rule of sports, and a basic rule of politics. Any uncontested race is an automatic loss. Unfortunately for KY Dems, all too often we have ceded the field to Republicans without even so much as filing a candidate. That changed in 2018:
House Races with Democratic Candidates
2014 – 76
2016 – 75
2018 – 92
Let’s see a graph of that, just for fun:
So, the first measure of party effectiveness is actually putting forth candidates. And in that regard, 2018 was a good year, with a 22% improvement in the number of House candidates.
Wins and close losses
Obviously, in the end the only thing that counts is winning seats. Still, it says something if you lose a seat by a small margin, as opposed to getting blown out: it tells you whether you are getting close to winning. Granted, the candidate also makes a huge difference – but in the aggregate, looking at margins can indicate trends.
In 2014, Dems had 6 contests where they lost by 10% or less. No one paid much attention to that, because they won 52 seats and kept control of the House (barely).
In 2016, the Year of the Shellacking, Dems lost 11 seats by 10% or less. (And if you say “that’s because they had more seats in the Loss column,” I’ll agree with you – but wait for the trend.)
In 2018, Dems had 13 losses of 10% or less. Still losses, but close.
HERE’s where this means something. If you add the wins and the close losses, you get some sense of whether we are getting closer to more wins. Here’s wins plus losses of 10% or less:
2014: 52 wins + 6 close losses == 58 races under the -10 points mark
2016: 36 wins + 11 close losses == 47 races under the -10 points mark (a definite step backwards)
2018: 39 wins + 13 close losses == 52 races under the -10 points mark
Obviously, 2018 was a big step back toward being competitive in the House again.
Votes needed to control the House
Another measure of competitiveness is sorting the results by margin, then seeing the minimum number of votes needed for Dems to have controlled the House in that election. (In other words, take all the Dem victories, then the votes of the smallest Repub wins that you would need to get to 51.)
- In 2016, Dems would have needed at least 21,351 more votes to have controlled the House.
- In 2018, they would have only needed 9,309 more votes in those races to control the House.
Improvements in margins, in both wins and losses
This is simple: if you compare the margin in 2018 to the margin in 2016 (and 2016 to 2014), in how many races did we improve our margins? Remember, a 20-point loss that becomes a 10-point loss is still a loss, but it’s moving in the right direction. How do these look?
- Races in 2016 with better margins than 2014: 19
- 3 because Repubs did not field a candidate, 10 because Dems did field a candidate, and 6 where there were two candidates in both elections and the margin actually improved
- Races in 2018 with better margins than 2016: 58
- 6 because Repubs did not field a candidate, 19 because Dems did field a candidate, and 33 where there were two candidates in both elections and the margin actually improved
If, out of 100 races, you have 58 where you performed better than the previous election, you should feel good about that, even if you didn’t win all of them.
Side note: This is where I think we are seeing the “Remember in November” effect, and the results of the enthusiasm on the Dem side. People who say that the energy of the spring did not carry over to the fall are wrong, I think.
BUT, there are two other things we can learn from the data that are not good signs for Kentucky Dems and progressives.
Bad news #1: The rural/urban and college-degree divides
You’ve heard it talked about: the Rural Red and the Urban Blue. (And, the Suburban Purple, to some extent.) In Kentucky, it is very evident.
The Dem pickups were mostly in urban and suburban areas. For example, they flipped two seats in eastern Louisville, which is normally a Republican area. And we’re not just talking about Louisville or Lexington; there were flips in other areas centered around cities across the state.
The other divide that people are discussing nationally is around having a college degree or not. College-educated women, especially, seem to be moving away from Trump and the Republicans.
Is this having an effect in Kentucky? May be too soon to tell – but taking a look at Dem seats and comparing it to towns with universities may be instructive.
Can these be overcome? Yes, of course. Other states are seeing progressive candidates win in rural areas. But it is going to take some thought and introspection to figure it out. (There’s more to say on the structural challenges for Democrats in today’s Kentucky, but we’ll leave that for another article.)
Bad news #2: turnout
Everyone has heard that turnout was up on Tuesday. It was, definitely:
- 2014 midterm: 1,257,114 votes
- 2018 midterm: 1,514,437 votes (20% more)
We’ve all heard that higher turnout is good for Dems, and it is usually true. This is why Republicans are so hell-bent on suppressing the vote.
But in Kentucky, something is going on with that. As much as we may not want to admit it, it appears that either Republicans just naturally turn out better … or they have a better GOTV operation than Dems
Take a look at the turnout over these three elections. We using the vote totals, not the registrations, but it still should be informative. (Remember that 2016 was a presidential election year.)
Dems turned out. The Dem turnout for 2018 was higher than the Repub turnout for 2014. But Repubs turned out more. (Or, Dems voted for Repubs – a different problem, but still bad.)
It seems to be time to take a long, hard look at our GOTV methods, and see where we can improve. Like, a lot.
As glum as KY Dems are right now about not overcoming the Repub super-majority in the House, a close look at all the numbers show many encouraging signs for the party:
- More candidates
- Better campaigns
- Closer margins
There are still significant gaps in fund-raising, and the impact of outside money certainly was part of the ultimate results. But Kentucky Dems should feel good about the trendlines.
Even so, we should be concerned about the rural/urban divide, about how to appeal to all voters and not just certain demographics, and how to overcome the financial disparities in the campaigns. A long-term plan for Dems and progressives to win in Kentucky must address these issues.
If you would like to see the Excel workbook that was used for this analysis,
you can download it here.