Special elections are one predictor of a party's likelihood of winning and Kentucky recently had two of them. Being seven months out from the general makes it tough to predict. Nonetheless, let's look at the overall climate and see if it's a help or hindrance to Democrats in November.
Overall Political Climate
- According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump continues to have the highest disapproval ratings of any modern president this early in his term. He's been averaging around 53% disapproval with 41% approval of likely voters. Guess-timate for yourself here. Trump's approval is higher in Kentucky at 50%.
- Nationally, Bloomberg noted that Congress loses 33 seats on average when the president's rating is below 50% and of the opposite party.
- Democrats have had a 12% better showing in special elections than the partisan lean would indicate.
- Governor Bevin continues to struggle with a disapproval rating of 41% (12th highest of 50 governors) and an approval rating of 41% (40th out of 50 governors).
- Kentuckian Linda Belcher (D) beat the partisan lean of her district by 81 percentage points. (estimated).
- While Kentuckian Kelly Smith (D) lost, she beat the partisan lean of her district by 26 points.
Reproduction of 538 Chart
Using the same methodology as in the 538 chart, special elections of 2018 were included. 538 weighted the 2016 presidential race more so than the 2012 race. Since Kentucky's special elections were in 2018, they were included but colored in blue. Notably, the Belcher election in District 89 is an extreme outlier in the 88 special elections since November of 2016. Smith roughly doubled the average gain for Democratic candidates in special elections.
Observations for 2018 Kentucky Elections
The national trends are definitely in play in Kentucky. Both state and national governments have the "trifecta" with Republicans having control of the house, senate and executive. Typically, the party out of control gains seats and, in some cases, dramatically so. (Think Virginia). Both President Trump and Governor Bevin have high disapproval ratings which could propel moderate voters toward Democrats.
With regard to Kentucky's special elections, Belcher's performance was clearly an outlier and unlikely to be duplicated. Smith's results were more in line with the average special election and she's deserves recognition for her performance. Using Bloomberg's methodology, Democrats could expect to pick up 8 seats (33 / 435). Of course, if Kentucky Democrats could pick up Smith's blue wave of 26 points above the partisan lean, then things could get really interesting .