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Special Elections

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The real political nerds follow special elections for hints of what is to come in 2022. There’s been a few. The most important one was for New Mexico-1, replacing Deb Haaland. As it turned out, a relative moderate named Melanie Stansbury won the Democratic primary, so she won’t be as good as Haaland. But Stansbury will be a reliable liberal, so whatever. Now, NM-1 has moved to the left over the years. When I lived there, it was represented by the odious Heather Wilson, Pete Domenici’s protege and someone widely expected to replace him in the Senate. But the district slowly changed, being deeply connected to the military didn’t matter as much in New Mexico as it used to, and she lost to now senator Martin Heinrich in 2008. But in the right circumstances, especially with a city that has a long-term crime problem, one could see how it might vote for a Republican again. That’s certainly what Republicans were hoping when it ran a 1980s style racist campaign about the animals committing all the crimes and threatening our young children. It did not work. At all. Paul Waldman:

Crime is rising in the United States, and for Republicans, that seems like a golden opportunity. Not only does fear sometimes push voters toward conservative candidates, but the GOP has been arguing since last year that Democrats are promoting an agenda of dismantling police so criminals can run rampant, burn down cities and towns, and murder you and your family.

It’s an old playbook. But what if precisely because the GOP hasn’t updated it in decades, it won’t work anymore?

That’s one way to interpret the Democratic win in a special House election in New Mexico. Republicans had hoped it would demonstrate that harsh attacks on Democrats over crime will be so potent that they’ll sweep Republicans back into power in the 2022 midterms. But they failed.

To be clear, there was almost no chance Republicans would win — the 1st Congressional District in Albuquerque, previously held by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, is Democratic territory. But their candidate, state Sen. Mark Moores, had hoped to make inroads by charging that the Democratic nominee, Melanie Stansbury, was so soft on crime that her election would plunge the nation into a dystopian nightmare of chaos and violence.

The pulsing heart of Moores’s campaign was an absolutely horrific TV ad warning of the danger Stansbury posed, showing video of a woman being assaulted in a dark alley while the sound of children screaming played in the background. It could have come right from the early 1990s.

But here’s the surprise: It didn’t work. The vote in the New Mexico election turned out to be exactly in line with the district’s recent history. In 2018, Haaland got 59 percent of the vote, in 2020 she got 58 percent of the vote, and Stansbury got 60 percent of the vote.

Might it be that voters won’t respond to fear-based, “tough on crime” rhetoric in the same way they used to?

Stansbury didn’t counter the “soft on crime” attacks as Democrats have in the past, by trying to prove that they’re even tougher than Republicans. She stressed issues such as hunger, climate change and economic development that are important to her constituents. She had her own ads touting support from law enforcement — but they weren’t about supporting punitive measures to lock up more people.

What is particularly encouraging here is that Democratic voters routinely don’t show up to special elections. That might change in the era of negative polarization. Waldman has another point that is really important:

Which, to be clear, some Democrats are. Many centrists continue to believe the party’s disappointing performance in 2020 House races can be blamed on left activists advocating “defunding the police,” an assertion backed up by almost no evidence.

In fact, almost every Democrat who lost that year did as well or better than you would have predicted given the ideological makeup of their district. The ones who lost were mostly members who rode into office in Republican-leaning districts in the Democratic sweep of 2018 and would have always been vulnerable in a high-turnout presidential year.

So this is the challenge Democrats face: They can fall back into the defensive crouch with which they are so familiar, convinced that every Republican attack must be turning voters against them. Or they can believe the evidence we’ve seen that those attacks don’t necessarily work, and keep talking about the approach they believe will produce a safer and more just society.

This is why your Abigail Spanberger’s of Congress need to knock it off with their attacks on the party left. The 2020 congressional races were actually pretty standard, except that Trump was on the ballot. Where that mattered and got out extra voters (aside: registering people to vote is by no means some sort of panacea for Democrats; those voters may well vote against you), Democratic majorities slipped a bit and so marginal Democratic districts such as NM-2 went back to Republicans. It’s really just that simple.

However, not all the news is good news. I had some hopes for TX-6, which is one of those suburban districts slowly moving to the left in disgust with Donald Trump. It went from Trump +12 in 2016 to Trump +3 in 2020. It’s idiot congresscritter, Ronald Wright, died of COVID in February. So this would not be an easy district for Democrats. But it did seem like a good place to test out Democratic support when Trump wasn’t running. Alas, Democrats couldn’t get their shit together and both of the top two finishers were Republicans. So that ain’t good, though it doesn’t prove a whole heck of a lot on its own.

It’s also worth noting something that happened yesterday, which is that McAllen, Texas, a city that is 85% Latino, voted a Republican in as mayor. It’s hard to get any good information on this right now, because it’s all Republicans gloating. So I don’t know. But it’s at least possible that Trumpism’s pull on south Texas is very real and could have larger implications on American politics. These local elections can be very, very local in the sense of anyone not living there has no clue about what is going on. And that very much includes myself. So I don’t have any take to make of it, except to say that I hope it’s not a trend.

Anyway, that’s kind of where we stand with the special elections. Obviously, the Virginia and New Jersey elections in November are the real tell about where we might stand in 2022. But any clue is something worth mentioning here.

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