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Erin Murphy

It would seem to be the special election heard ’round the world.

But as pundits attempt to forecast the next U.S. president and control of Congress based on just more than 7,000 votes cast in three southeast Iowa counties, at least one expert is urging caution.

On Tuesday, Democrat Phil Miller won a special election in the Iowa House’s 82nd District. The seat became vacant with the recent death of state Rep. Curt Hanson.

Miller, a veterinarian, defeated Republican Travis Harris and two other candidates.

The political takes came in hot and heavy, assumedly for one reason: Democrats won a Trump district.

Miller, the Democrat, indeed defeated his Republican opponent by 9 percentage points in Iowa House District 82, which went for then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016 by 21 percentage points.

Democrats pounced on the result, proclaiming a change in the political headwinds. And not just local Democrats.

Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, issued a statement on the Iowa House special election result.

“The tide is turning against Trump and Republican lawmakers,” Perez said. “Trump won this rural district by more than 20 percent last year, and Miller carried it by about 10 points. That’s a 30-point swing against Republicans since November, and shows that rural Iowans are rejecting an agenda that prioritizes the wealthiest at the expense of hardworking families.”

Democrats in Iowa and nationally are recovering from consecutive devastating elections in 2014 and 2016. They are hopeful the 2018 elections will start to reverse that trend.

But there are many reasons to be cautious about declaring Miller’s special election victory a harbinger of future results.

Iowa’s 82nd District encompasses all of Davis and Van Buren counties, and the western half of Jefferson County, including the cities of Fairfield and Maharishi Vedic City. The district’s partisan voter registry is fairly balanced; its active registered voter population is 35 percent Republican, 33 percent Democrat and 31 percent no-party, according to the most recent Iowa Secretary of State data.

While Trump won the district in 2016, so did Hanson, who was unopposed. Hanson also won the seat comfortably in the 2012 presidential election year, and scored a narrow victory, by 3 percentage points, in the 2014 GOP wave year.

The bottom line is Hanson and the Democrats have held the seat since the district was redrawn in 2010.

And projecting future election results based on any statehouse race --- especially a special election --- is dangerous, said University of Northern Iowa political scientist Chris Larimer.

Larimer said there is empirical evidence to support using U.S. House and Senate races to gauge voters’ feelings about the president.

Using statehouse races, on the other hand ...

“Those are local races. Those are a lot more about personal politics and do you know the person running,” Larimer told me this week. “So I think projecting down to that level, to say that that’s an indication that the president’s party is going to have widespread trouble in 2018, I think I would be much more cautious about doing that for that kind of race than for a federal race.”

Even to compare Miller’s margin of victory to Hillary Clinton’s margin of defeat is not comparing apples to apples. There were 14,498 votes cast for either Trump or Clinton in the 82nd District in 2016; there were just 7,474 votes cast in this week’s special election.

“There’s always a danger of overgeneralization beyond what the data tell you. In this case you have to be careful,” Larimer cautioned. “It almost looks like you’re just kind of grabbing for something to support your argument at that point.”

Maybe Democrats will be successful in the 2018 election and take back the White House in 2020. Typically, a first-term president loses Congressional seats in the first mid-term election, and Trump’s approval ratings are historically low.

But caution should be taken when considering whether this week’s Iowa House special election is any kind of indicator.

“You’re getting down to a state legislative race, and not only that but a special election race in an off year,” Larimer warned. “You just have to be careful.”

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net.

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