Whenever there’s a special election for a House or Senate seat, the two parties react predictably. The victorious party proclaims that the election was a national referendum of huge significance. The losing party attributes the outcome to local problems—perhaps the candidate was weak or the campaign was disorganized and off-message. In truth, special elections aren’t all the same. Sometimes they tell us something about what is going on nationally; other times the peculiar aspects of the election make it difficult, if not impossible, to divine any relevance beyond the boundaries of that district. Often the outcome reflects a combination of factors—some uniquely local, some national.
The two House races this week are a case in point that each special election should be viewed separately. In Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District, a seat vacated by the appointment of Dean Heller to the U.S. Senate, Republican Mark Amodei swamped Democrat Kate Marshall 58 percent to 36 percent. By the numbers, the 2nd District is just as GOP-leaning as New York’s 26th District, which Democrats won in May. If Republicans were going through really tough times and President Obama’s popularity was perhaps 50 percent or higher nationally, the outcome could have been different. If the GOP had lost this seat, it would have been a sign that the GOP majority was in real danger. But with the president’s approval rating nationally closer to 40 percent than to 50 percent, it was not much of a surprise that Republicans won.
More instructive was the outcome in New York’s 9th Congressional District, a seat that opened when amateur photographer Anthony Weiner resigned. This district voted 67 percent for Al Gore in 2000, 56 percent for John Kerry in 2004, and 55 percent for Barack Obama in 2008 (an admittedly anomalous trend line). Yet Republican Bob Turner, who lost to Weiner 59 percent to 41 percent last November, defeated Democrat David Weprin 54 percent to 46 percent. It was a tough loss for Democrats. Just a few weeks ago, Republicans didn’t think they had any chance of winning, but Democrats were forced to hit the panic button five days out and spend considerable resources in a futile bid to save the seat.
So was the loss local and unique, or was it national and significant? The answer is probably both. Did Weiner’s antics damage the Democratic brand in the district? Probably so. Was Weprin (the fourth-straight New York Assembly member to lose a House special election) a terrible candidate? Absolutely. But with a lousy economy and Obama’s disconnect with some segments of the more observant Jewish population (this district has the highest proportion of Jewish voters in the country), the loss cannot be blamed completely on Weiner and Weprin. A good Democratic candidate might have survived in this district, even with a bad economy and an unpopular president. Conversely, a lousy Democratic candidate would probably have won, albeit narrowly, if the president’s popularity was high and the economy OK. Arguably, if Obama was more popular in the district, Democrats might have been able to persuade a more formidable contender than Weprin to run. So, in this sense, New York’s 9th District was a perfect storm for Democrats. A confluence of factors cost them a seat they should have retained.
That Democrats lost NV-02 by 22 points and NY-09 by 8 points underscores the challenge they face in winning a House majority in 2012. With the loss of Weiner’s district, Democrats now must pick up 25 seats to regain control. The two special-election losses also suggest that the Medicare issue doesn’t move the needle like it did in May. In a post-debt-ceiling, post-credit-downgrade environment, independents and maybe even some nominal partisans see the unpopular plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to turn Medicare into a voucher system as more of a distant memory than an immediate threat. Unfortunately for Democrats, voters are basing their choices more on their frustration with Obama than on their assessment of congressional Republicans. In the current environment, Democrats can’t take comfort in the theory that there are more Republican bums than Democrat bums to throw out.
Even before the latest special-election results rolled in, the White House and House Democrats were engaged in a behind-the-scenes blame game reflecting their competing political priorities and strategies. House Democrats, for example, have griped that the Justice Department seems more intent on fighting voter-ID laws in states that will be battlegrounds in the 2012 presidential election than in challenging GOP redistricting maps that hurt Democrats. In the past few weeks, they have said that Marshall’s and Weprin’s poll numbers really started sinking when Obama’s did. Democrats hoped the debt-ceiling debacle would rip the GOP apart, but today they are the ones struggling to present a united front. Losses in NV-02 and NY-09 don’t help.
If anyone wants to conclude that the Democrats face a bleaker prospect of scoring a net gain of 25 seats and recapturing a House majority, they would not be wrong. Democrats could still reach 25 next year, but it will be very, very hard, as this past week has demonstrated.
David Wasserman contributed
This article appears in the September 17, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.