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The Special Election Spectrum

Results can offer lessons, if you know how to categorize them.

Democratic candidate for the 26th District Congressional seat, Kathy Hochul, left, talks with Debra Norton, right, and her husband Morrie Newman, front,  during a campaign stop at a restaurant in Amherst, N.Y., Tuesday, May 24, 2011.   Hochul is running against Republican Jane Corwin and tea party candidate Jack Davis in the race to succeed Republican Chris Lee. Lee resigned in February after shirtless photos surfaced that he'd sent to a woman on Craigslist. (AP Photo/David Duprey)(AP Photo/David Duprey)

photo of Reid Wilson
May 25, 2011

It’s a Washington refrain that both parties try to spin: Don’t read too much into special election results … unless my party wins.

Democrats are spinning the results of Tuesday’s special election in upstate New York as clear evidence that Medicare will be a top issue for them in 2012.

Republicans are dismissing the result as a fluke caused by a wealthy third-party candidate who spent $3 million bashing the Republican. Both sides have a point, but neither tells the whole story.


In the history of the House, there have been 1,447 special elections. Some of the best-known members come from those specials: Reps. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., John Dingell, D-Mich., Don Young, R-Alaska, Ron Paul, R-Texas, former Rep. and Sen. George Allen, R-Va., and the late Reps. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., and Carl Vinson, D-Ga.

Each special is different, but they all fall into categories of the political landscape: the Partisan Poison, the Intraparty Squabble, the Issues-Based Fight and the Snoozer.

The Partisan Poison: In 2008, Democrats went on a special-election winning streak that lasted a remarkable two years. President George W. Bush was unpopular, and Republicans bore the brunt from voters angry with the party’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a recession, and the government’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.

When Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., quit Congress to become a lobbyist and Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., was appointed to an open Senate seat, the resulting special elections should have been easy GOP wins. But national anger at Republicans fired up Democrats and kept many Republicans home. The results: Democrat Don Cazayoux won Baker’s Baton Rouge-based district, and 10 days later Democrat Travis Childers won Wicker’s northern Mississippi seat.

Both districts snapped back to the GOP under more favorable conditions; Cazayoux lost his seat in the 2008 general, and Childers lost his in 2010’s Republican wave. But the poisonous national environment cost the GOP two seats they should have otherwise won.

The Intraparty Squabble: Special elections don’t always follow the same rules as regular contests. Many states don’t allow for a primary, opting instead for a winner-take-all contest. In Nevada, where the Secretary of State favors this approach for a special election in September, observers have dubbed this the “Ballot Royale.” Other states, like New York, have long traditions of third-party participation, which can siphon votes from the two major party candidates.

Democrats got the short end of the multicandidate stick in 2010, when Colleen Hanabusa and former Rep. Ed Case split 60 percent of the vote for a Honolulu-based seat. Republican Charles Djou won the seat with 39 percent, though he lost to Hanabusa in the general election that November.

Republicans experienced the drawbacks of third-party participation the year before, in New York’s 23rd District. There, Republican Dede Scozzafava had backing from the national party before an energized tea party bloc backed her opponent, Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. Hoffman got 46 percent, Scozzafava just 6 percent, and Democrat Bill Owens won with 48 percent. Owens kept the seat in the 2010 general, but only after Hoffman again took enough votes to deny the Republican nominee a unified base.

Republicans say exactly the same thing happened in New York’s 26th District on Tuesday, where GOP nominee Jane Corwin got 43 percent of the vote while Jack Davis, a former Democrat running on the tea party line, won 9 percent. Democratic Rep.-elect Kathy Hochul won with 47 percent.

The Issues-Based Fight: It may be hard to remember now, but back in early 2009, the stimulus package was popular and President Obama had sky-high approval ratings. Just a month after congressional Democrats and three Republican senators passed the $787 billion bill, Democrat Scott Murphy based his entire campaign around supporting the measure as he campaigned for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s House seat, a sprawling area that flanks Albany and borders Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

Murphy’s Republican rival, Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, had more trouble deciding how he felt about the stimulus. Asked directly whether he would have voted for it, Tedisco offered a rambling explanation, as well as an excuse: “I’m not a speed reader.” Murphy won the race by less than half-a-percentage point.

Democrats say Tuesday’s election depended on an issue, specifically House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal to make Medicare a voucher program. Hochul spent the campaign hammering Corwin over it. Corwin acknowledged in an interview with a local paper on Monday that she should have responded to Hochul’s attacks earlier.

The Snoozer: By far the bulk of special elections turn out to be quiet, low-key affairs in which the same party keeps control. Of the 45 special elections in the last decade, the incumbent party has won 35. Recently-elected Reps. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., Steve Scalise, R-La., Donna Edwards, D-Md., and Judy Chu, D-Calif., barely had to lift a finger after winning a primary to win a general election. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., had to work hard for his general election win only because he faced another Republican in his northwestern Georgia district.

The Hochul win was no snoozer. Call it a hybrid of the Intraparty Squabble and the Issues-Based Fight. Each side will passionately spin for their conclusions, but both Democrats’ Medicare attacks and Davis’s role were factors.

Identifying the risks and opportunities in a special election can offer an important leg up—and give the parties lessons for the next one: Nevada’s 2nd District.

This article appears in the May 26, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.

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