A once-sleepy House race in western New York is heating up, once again offering proof of why special elections matter.
Special elections allow political journalists and pundits the ability to take the pulse of a slice of the country, a rare opportunity even as we’re deluged with polls and spin.
Political operatives generally hate special elections—and for good reason. It forces campaign committee officials to spend scarce resources on campaigns that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t matter much. With 435 House seats, spending significant attention and money on a single one is counterproductive, especially when control of Congress isn’t at stake.
In special elections, candidate quality and message matters much more than in a November election (when a House race usually doesn’t lead the ticket), putting strategists’ reputations on the line on the backs of candidates and campaigns that often aren’t up to snuff. And the complicated rules for some special elections—candidates of all parties running together on a winner-take-all ballot, party leaders tapping the respective nominees, ease of third-party candidate qualifying, to name a few—adds to the unpredictability.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that, properly interpreted, contested special elections can legitimately offer insights about the district—and can foreshadow things to come.
Since 2004, more than 40 special congressional elections have been held, and the majority reflected the political mood of their states and districts at the time. Last year, Sen. Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts showcased the unpopularity of the president’s health care bill and foreshadowed significant GOP gains.
Months earlier, ideological fissures between the Republican Party and conservatives in a GOP-friendly Upstate New York district allowed Democrats to pick off a seat—a harbinger of tea party pull. Republicans later frittered away golden opportunities to win Senate seats, because the base nominated candidates unappealing to the general public.
In 2008, three Democratic special election victories in two Southern seats and the district of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois foreshadowed the Democratic landslide that year. Rep. Jean Schmidt’s struggle in a heavily Republican district in 2005 was an ominous sign of things to come one year later for the GOP.
The misleading cliché of special elections is that, given the low turnout, whichever side turns out their base more effectively wins. But in the aforementioned races, it was the party with a much smaller base that won. The Republican machinery is moribund in Massachusetts; Brown’s anti-Washington message carried the day. In Upstate New York special elections in 2009, some counties were so Republican they didn’t even have local Democratic organizations to turn out voters, but the party managed to win two close races.
The inconvenient truth is that issues resonate more in special elections, because they’re the only campaign in town. In November, with other races on the ballot, many voters are hardly familiar with House candidates. But in a contested special election with more politically attuned voters, there’s more reason to pay attention to the nominees’ views.
We’re seeing that play out in the closer-than-expected special election set for May 24 in western New York. The campaign is taking place in a solid GOP district but has been contested by Democrats in recent elections when the political environment favors them. In 2006, then-Rep. Tom Reynolds suffered a scare thanks to late-breaking scandals afflicting the GOP, and in 2008 Democrats spent more than $1.2 million to contest the open seat.
This month’s special election, once thought to be a cakewalk for Republicans, is proving that voters are paying attention. The Republican nominee, state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, had the early advantage and ran television ads she personally financed. Democrats were hesitant to even declare they were competing in the contest.
But her Democratic opponent, Erie County Commissioner Kathy Hochul, has been hammering away at Corwin, accusing her of supporting GOP plans to convert Medicare into a voucher—an issue that resonates in a district where seniors are 15 percent of the population. Complicating things is the presence of independent Jack Davis, running on a tea party line despite tenuous ties to the movement.
Republicans are quick to blame Davis for the close contest, with polling on both sides showing his voters disproportionately coming from Corwin. It’s a reason Democrats are hesitant to spend money, fearing that Davis’s support could dissipate.
But in a GOP-leaning district, this race was never supposed to be close in the first place—and Hochul’s relentless attacks have driven down Corwin’s popularity. On Tuesday, the conservative American Crossroads announced it would step in with an ad buy of around $350,000, underscoring that Corwin is in danger of letting the race slip away.
In the district, which has bled jobs for decades, voters want to hear a candidate squarely focused on pocketbook issues. Hochul has connected with them, particularly on seniors’ entitlements and even her fight against costly tolls.
As the late Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts famously said, “All politics is local.” It’s a quote invoked to downplay the significance of national issues in a congressional campaign. But politics, locally, can also tell us an awful lot about the national environment.
This article appears in the May 11, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.