IOWA — There is always a bit of unchecked hubris in politics ahead of a big midterm election. Special elections, at times, lull strategists into believing their party will safely hold onto its majority or snatch it away from the other side.
Between 1900 and 2008, by-elections were fairly predictive when lined up with what happened later.
But that has not been the case in the past 10 years.
Ahead of the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats won pretty much every special election contest. Yet in November 2010, Republicans brought home one of the largest majority sweeps in the history of the House, winning 63 seats and earning their biggest majority in over 50 years.
Republicans racked up a few good special election wins ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, only to lose their majority to the Democrats in that year's midterm elections.
Still, this does not mean special elections — particularly those won and lost at the most local levels — offer us a plausible interpretation of where we are heading in this country or an indicator of how we feel about those in power. That sentiment has dramatically shifted what our political parties have looked like in the past 10 years.
Oct. 12, a state House seat centered in Newton, Iowa, flipped from blue to red for the first time in 46 years. Republican Jon Dunwell defeated Democrat Steve Mullan for House District 29 by 20 points, giving Iowa Republicans a 60-40 majority in the state House and marking the third special election they have won this year.
Dunwell said in an interview with the Washington Examiner the day after his historic win that his approach to running for office was looking around and noting what concerned the residents of District 29.
He asked what was important to them, saying, “The first thing they taught me was what they weren’t interested in — and that was the national politics that my opponent was running on, which was sort of running on the national headline of the day.”
Dunwell said he focused on local issues that affect the people of the district by knocking on doors and attending community and school board meetings.
“When you listen to people and hear them engage in dialogue and discussion about the things that are important to them, it begins to shape how you understand what is important to the community,” he explained.
This race demonstrated first that localism matters. Second, Joe Biden is a drag on Democrats running for office even in traditionally Democratic territory in the heartland.
Dunwell’s focus on keeping the race local helped lift his chances. Meanwhile, one month before the special election, the Des Moines Register showed just 31% of Iowans approved of how Biden was handling his duties as president, with a staggering 62% disapproving.
Pollster Ann Selzer told the Register, "This is a bad poll for Joe Biden, and it's playing out in everything that he touches right now.”
Towns like Newton across the Midwest have been Democratic strongholds for decades, largely because of the union manufacturing jobs held by the generation of workers who lived and worked here.
The demise of those jobs, which scattered families and traditions, eventually changed attitudes and voting patterns. Having elected Democrats for decades and failed to see an improvement, they changed.
In 2012, voters in this Iowa House District voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by more than 10 percentage points. Within a decade, the same voters chose Trump soundly over both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.
Iowa state House Speaker Pat Grassley said that beginning in 2016, Republicans have made gains in districts like this one that has historically leaned Democratic.
“They became more competitive as both parties started to change, and traditional Democrat-leaning voters gave us the opportunity to tell them what conservatives stand for,” said Grassley in an interview with the Washington Examiner from his farm in Iowa. “Once we’ve been getting a chance to get our foot in the door and try to pitch, our message, it seems to me, is well-received in districts a lot like this one.”
The grandson of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said Iowans "have liked what they have seen" in the direction the state has taken under Republican leadership since 2010. Ten years ago, it was still hard to get conservative candidates to run for local offices in Democratic-dominated seats or get Washington-based Republican campaign committees to drop cash into races like this one.
But this year, the Republican State Leadership Committee invested $25,000 in the race.
This special election may indicate that Democrats are heading for a rather unpleasant 2022. But more importantly, it shows how the great shift in political party alignment has been misunderstood, mischaracterized, and just plain missed for the past six years.
The very people Democrats once called their own are leaving a party that left them long ago.