House Special Report

Previewing the Three Special Elections on Tap


If the November 2008 election was the equivalent of a Democratic tidal wave crashing on the United States, the special elections held earlier that year should have been the early warning system. Before any ballots were cast on November 4, Democrats had already captured three previously-Republican seats in 2008. These three seats (IL-14, LA-6, and MS-1) had been considered relatively safe Republican seats, with George W. Bush winning 55 percent, 59 percent, and 62 percent of the vote in each district respectively in 2004. While these special elections were not the first signs of a Democratic wave approaching, they were among the most unmistakable.

Flash forward to 2009. Three more districts are already slated for special elections, but this time Democrats are defending all three seats. If the Republicans are looking for a quick rebound, this is where they should look. The GOP has so far been playing the part of the loyal opposition in Congress, hoping that economic woes and anti-stimulus sentiment would tarnish the Democratic brand and revive their own electoral hopes. Just four months removed from their catastrophic showing in 2008, Republican partisans are hungry for any good news.

While the bitter taste of 2006 and 2008 still lingers in the mouths of congressional Republicans, the taste of special election victory has been all but forgotten. Over the past decade, the GOP has captured just one Democratic seat in a special election, while their rivals have picked up five seats (for a summary of special election results, click here). While Republicans haven’t posted a net House seat gain in a regular election since 2004, they haven’t picked up a single House seat in a special election since 2001. For the disheartened GOP, there would be no time like the present to reverse that trend.

Without further ado, the Crystal Ball sets off on its tour of the three upcoming special election contests to see whether they will be a GOP oasis or nothing more than a mirage.

NY-20 (Saratoga Springs)–Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) left to accept Senate appointment

Heading into 2008, Republicans circled this usually Republican seat as a potential pick-up. Freshman Democratic Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand won the seat in 2006 by just 6 percent, despite her opponent’s many foibles, from being photographed at a college fraternity party to allegations of domestic violence. Gillibrand, however, was widely acknowledged to be one of the hardest working freshmen of her class and she won 62 percent of the vote over a very credible challenger. She didn’t stop there. When Hillary Clinton was chosen to be Secretary of State, Gillibrand was appointed to fill Clinton’s Senate seat. That appointment created a vacancy in NY-20 which sparked the first special election of the year, scheduled for March 31.

Republicans immediately saw a great opportunity to win back the seat in the special election. With Gillibrand out of the way, the GOP hoped they could return New York’s 20th District to its Republican roots. After fielding Jim Tedisco, New York State Assembly Minority Leader, as their A-list candidate, hopes shot even higher. For their part, Democrats selected venture capitalist Scott Murphy who had never before held elected office, but provided the opportunity to raise big money to offset his low name recognition. With the ballot set on February 2, the first race of 2009 was on!

The first signs were favorable for the GOP as an initial poll showed Tedisco leading Murphy 50-29. Republicans were enthused. “GOP Pins Hopes on N.Y. House Race,” read one headline. More recent surveys, however, have shown Murphy steadily gaining on the Republican. The most recent nonpartisan poll, taken the second week of March by the Siena Research Institute, showed Tedisco’s lead had shrunk to 45-41 over Murphy.

Why the shrinking lead? First, Murphy’s numbers were bound to rise as his name identification increased. Second, and perhaps most important, was Tedisco’s handling of the stimulus issue. Murphy got a lot of mileage out of the Republican candidate’s initial refusal to say how he would vote on the stimulus package, calling it a “hypothetical question.” In the past week, however, Tedisco has clarified his stance and has become a staunch opponent of the bill, hoping the furor over AIG bonuses would boost him over the pro-stimulus Murphy. Both parties are now casting this race as a referendum on the stimulus and the victorious party will certainly cite the result as confirmation of its position.

In the end, this race could either be a morale boost for the reeling GOP or just another special election disappointment. Republicans are already blaming Tedisco for a poorly-run campaign, but in an area that has been trending Democratic and which Obama won in 2008, this was never the sure thing some in the GOP had hoped. On Election Day, special elections come down to the ground game, as low turnout makes almost any outcome a possibility. With just a week to go, this is certainly anybody’s ballgame.

IL-05 (Chicago, Cook County)–Rep. Rahm Emanuel left to become White House Chief of Staff

When Rep. Rahm Emanuel left the House to join Obama’s White House staff, Democrats lost an experienced candidate and legislator, but they likely will get to keep his seat. Favorite son Barack Obama racked up 73 percent of the 2008 presidential vote in this district, and past Democrats have done almost as well, capturing over two-thirds of the presidential votes in the past three elections. If the 2008 House special elections taught us anything, though, it was that a lopsided history of party preference does not always guarantee a favorable result. While it may not always be a guarantee, in this race, it seems to be.

The Democratic nominee in the April 7 general election will be Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley. Quigley prevailed over a field of twelve Democrats on the March 3 primary ballot, winning a 22 percent plurality victory. His closest competitor received 18 percent of the vote, with a total of five candidates capturing between 12 and 22 percent. Quigley was never the establishment favorite and he even sat out the party’s endorsement meeting where the state central committee tried unsuccessfully to unite behind one candidate in advance of the primary. With no party endorsement and a crowded field of candidates, Quigley managed to squeak into first place and capture the nomination.

Looking ahead to April 7, Quigley will face Republican Rosanna Pulido who won a similarly crowded primary with just 25 percent of the vote. Pulido is an anti-illegal immigration activist, who is little known in the district. The Green Party will also be fielding a candidate, 27-year-old Matt Reichel. Given the turnout in the primary, where Democrats cast 92 percent of the ballots to 7 percent for the GOP and just 1 percent for the Greens, Quigley seems all but certain to hold the seat for the Democratic Party.

CA-32 (Covina, Monterrey Park)–Rep. Hilda Solis left to become Secretary of Labor

Rep. Hilda Solis’s confirmation as Obama’s Labor Secretary on February 24 set a third special election into motion. Voters will use an unusual all-party primary format to choose their new congressperson on May 19. Any candidate who receives over 50 percent of the vote will be declared the winner, but if no candidate reaches that threshold, the top vote-getter from each party will advance to a runoff. While special elections usually draw sparse voter turnout, this contest will likely be different, as voters will also be able to cast votes on a series of budget referendums on May 19, driving more people to the polls.

While there is a full field of candidates vying to replace Solis, the two front-runners are state senator Gil Cedillo and tax authority board member and former mayor Judy Chu. While the district is 62 percent Hispanic, which will likely help Cedillo, both candidates are at least as focused on winning the California Democratic Party endorsement as they are on the May election. With a caucus upcoming on April 18, both Chu and Cedillo are trying to amass the 60 percent of delegates needed to capture the party’s endorsement.

On the Republican side, there are at least three candidates in the race so far, including restaurateur Teresa Hernandez, accountant Jim Hetzel, and former city councilman David Truax. Still, it likely will not matter which Republican advances. In the 32nd District, the last three Democratic presidential candidates roughly doubled the vote totals of their Republican rivals. For her part, Solis captured over two-thirds of the vote in all five of her general election contests and was unopposed in 2008.

The best hope for Republicans is to force a July 14 runoff general election, which could very well happen if neither Chu nor Cedillo drops out before the May primary. The July 14 election would then take place with much lower turnout, since there would be nothing else on the ballot, and the Republican nominee would have a slim chance of eking out a win. This is not a very likely scenario and it would take something akin to a political miracle for Republicans to pull off the upset in such heavily Democratic territory.

If those races aren’t enough to satiate your electoral appetite, there is likely a second helping to come later this year. Rep. Ellen Tauscher from California’s 10th District has been picked for a State Department position, but a special election in that district is on hold, pending the often arduous confirmation process. This would be a fourth Democratic vacancy, but still not a probable Republican pick-up, since the district gave Obama two-thirds of the vote in 2008.

Republicans may have to content themselves with a shot at the NY-20 seat, which clearly represents their best chance of 2009 so far. A Republican victory would provide a much-needed shot in the arm for a GOP that is looking for validation of its firm anti-stimulus position against a still-popular Democratic administration. If, on the other hand, Democrats can hold on to all four seats, it would mark the continuation of more than three years of Democratic domain in House elections. In either case, these races will provide the first glimpse at congressional election politics against the backdrop of complete Democratic control of the White House and Capitol Hill.