Sabatos Crystal Ball


Special Election Recaps and Previews

Isaac Wood April 23rd, 2009


The Washington Nationals aren’t the only D.C. team off to a disappointing start. House Republicans have already lost one special election contest, and the rest of the special election schedule looks bleak as well. And don’t forget the extra innings effort in NY-20, which Republicans have all but lost. In politics, as in baseball, April is too early to count a team out; but, for a GOP team in desperate need of a win, they can’t be too happy with how things have gone so far.

To catch you up on the season so far and to preview the contests to come, the Crystal Ball sets off on a coast-to-coast road trip.

NY-20 (Saratoga Springs)

Scott Murphy (D): 79,839 (50.09 percent)

Jim Tedisco (R): 79,566 (49.91 percent)

(Recount litigation ongoing)

Hopes were high leading up to the March 31 special election in NY-20, the first test of the GOP in its newly cast role as opposition. With the stimulus package and unpopular AIG bonuses as the backdrop, Republican Jim Tedisco, the state assembly minority leader, faced off against a little-known Democrat and venture capitalist, Scott Murphy. Early polling was positive, showing Tedisco with as much as a 21-point lead. By the week before the election, however, Murphy had made up much of that ground and the Crystal Ball noted that the race was still “anybody’s ballgame.”

Now, three weeks later, the outcome is still undecided, but when all the votes are finally counted, Murphy will likely be declared the victor. Given the composition of the ballots that are being challenged, not only will Murphy likely hold on for the win, but his lead will probably even grow.

Although some on the left will no doubt cite this as a coup for Democrats and Obama’s economic agenda, that’s a pretty shaky claim. First, Murphy’s win, if it stands will be by a razor-thin margin. Although politicians often claim otherwise, a victory by just a handful of votes is rarely a mandate.

Second, the turnout was just 35 percent of registered voters, a low total, even by American election standards. While this is not at all a poor special election showing, with many special elections not reaching even 100,000 total votes cast. Still, considering the same district saw turnout of over 70 percent in the November election, it is difficult to say that this special election was the reflection of the will of the citizenry, especially given the likely unrepresentative composition of the special election electorate.

Lastly, House special elections take place in a political vacuum and the NY-20 race was the only item on the ballot, allowing voters to concentrate solely on the candidates themselves. With the special election as the only game in town, the voting was as much a referendum on the individual candidates as on the national parties.

With the special election all but over, the real question is whether Tedisco will seek to reprise his candidacy in 2010. If the economy stays sour, the GOP’s stock may have risen by then, allowing him to reverse the slim margin and pick up the seat. Party leaders, however, are unlikely to be very excited about a candidate who blew such a big lead, and may be unwilling to give him a second chance.

For Tedisco, a special election victory now seems entirely out of reach. His supporters, though, can take solace in the sports fan’s mantra, “There’s always next year.”

IL-05 (Chicago, Cook County)

Mike Quigley (D): 22,844 (73.36 percent)

Rosanna Pulido (R): 6,025 (19.35 percent)

Matt Reichel (G): 2,269 (7.29 percent)

(Rep. Rahm Emanuel left to become White House Chief of Staff)

In contrast to the dead heat in New York, the April 7 special election in Illinois’ 5th District was something of a blowout. As the Crystal Ball predicted, Democrat Mike Quigley coasted to victory, capitalizing on his unlikely primary victory in this deep Blue district. Perhaps the only remarkable result was the abysmal turnout which reached just 10 percent across the district. Considering Obama won 73 percent of the vote here in November, Quigley’s identical vote share was not at all surprising. As a result, Quigley joins the distinguished (kind of) list of IL-05 congressmen, succeeding new White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and his predecessor, embattled ex-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

CA-32 (East Los Angeles)

(Rep. Hilda Solis left to become Secretary of Labor)

The next special election contest will take place on May 19, when eight Democrats, three Republicans, and a Libertarian will share the primary ballot in hopes of replacing departing Democratic Rep. Hilda Solis. Under California’s electoral rules, if any candidate musters 50 percent or more on this primary ballot, they will be declared the winner. If no candidate passes that threshold, the top vote-getters from each party advance to a general election on July 14.

In this district which Obama won with 68 percent of the vote, a Democrat is almost sure to win election. Therefore, attention has been focused primarily on Democratic front-runners Gil Cedillo, a state senator, and Judy Chu, a tax authority board member and former mayor. While Cedillo, who is Hispanic, may benefit from the 62 percent Hispanic demographic in the district, Chu has recently been pulling away. First came the revelation of Cedillo’s costly campaign-financed trips to restaurants, hotels, fashion retailers which the L.A. Times called “lavish.” On April 15, more good news for Chu came in the form of the finance disclosures, showing her fundraising haul of over $800,000 to Cedillo’s $570,000, leaving her with a $135,000 cash-on-hand advantage. Then, on April 18, the state Democratic Party unanimously endorsed Chu for the seat, a major coup in such a heated primary.

One factor which could potentially hurt Chu is the entry of a Republican candidate named Betty Chu, with the two names appearing adjacent to each other on the ballot. Since the candidates will have different party labels by their names, Judy Chu’s supporters are hoping the level of confusion will be low. Barring any major changes, Chu appears to have the momentum and most of the establishment support. In such a heavily Blue district, even a Democratic primary win of less than 50 percent would likely portend general election victory in July. The way things are shaping up, this seat is Chu’s to lose.

CA-10 (Contra Costa County)

(Rep. Ellen Tauscher awaiting confirmation to join State Department)

Before Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher even leaves her House seat, the jockeying is already underway to replace her. For her part, Tauscher has already endorsed state Senator Mark DeSaulnier to succeed her, but Lieutenant Governor and current gubernatorial candidate John Garamendi seems eager to exit the statewide race and jump into the congressional one after early polling shows the governor’s mansion somewhat out of his reach. State Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan is the other name being bandied about, and many say she would gain some advantage by being the other woman in the race. Buchanan has already conducted a poll of the district, showing her running even with DeSaulnier, although that was before Tauscher’s endorsement was announced.

At the moment, pending the decisions of Garamendi and Buchanan, DeSaulnier is the clear frontrunner. He already has captured the endorsements of Tauscher, Rep. George Miller of California’s 7th District, state Senate President Darrell Steinberg, as well as that of the local building and construction trades council and the labor council. All that could change in a moment however, if Garamendi enters. His high name recognition and prodigious fundraising would put him on at least even footing with DeSaulnier should he decide to enter the race. Buchanan would likely fare best ina three-way race, where she could benefit from a likely Emily’s List endorsement and perhaps prevail as DeSaulnier and Garamendi split votes.

Republicans, though, are not content to just give away an open seat, even if it is one where Democrats hold a nearly twenty percent party registration advantage. While several Republicans have announced so far, the best hope for the GOP may be Contra Costa County Sheriff Warren Rupf. Although Rupf has never run a partisan race, he is well-known and well-liked and could attract moderate voters with his non-partisan appeal.

Although the date for the primary has yet to be set, pending Tauscher’s confirmation by the U.S. Senate, the race is already on. With a bevy of A-list candidates, this race in CA-10 could be this summer’s big blockbuster.