Cook: Don't over-interpret special elections

/ Source: National Journal

It is very easy, often tempting, to over-interpret the meaning of a special congressional election. Many read great importance into the results of a single congressional district and try to extrapolate that meaning to 434 other districts for the next election.

The truth is that there are often unique or local circumstances that play an important role in determining the outcome of the election. They don't call these contests "special" for nothing.

But it is also tempting, if one is on the losing side of a special election, to rationalize the outcome, to focus exclusively on the unusual circumstances and deny larger truths that emerge from that or from a pattern of special elections.

Take this past Saturday's special election in Louisiana's 6th District to replace Rep. Richard Baker, a Republican who resigned to take the top job with the Managed Funds Association.

There are plenty of unique circumstances behind the victory of Democratic Rep.-elect Don Cazayoux (Pronunciation hint: Think of a cashew but substitute zhew for shoe) in a district that President Bush carried with 55 and 59 percent in 2000 and 2004, respectively.

Republicans got saddled with a candidate who, to a certain extent, was the Pelican State's answer to Florida's former Rep. Katherine Harris.

Just as Harris couldn't lose a statewide primary and couldn't win a statewide general election, longtime conservative activist and former state legislator Woody Jenkins was very difficult to beat in a closed GOP primary but entered into a general election with a walk-in closet of political and personal baggage.

Jenkins came in on the short side of the 49-46 percent race, but a weekend in Baton Rouge last month convinced me that few thought Woody would win even then, though few thought he would lose badly either -- the district is too Republican for that.

A generic Republican would have outperformed Woody.

Similarly, the GOP loss in March of Illinois' 14th District -- formerly held by Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and which President Bush won with 54 percent in 2000, 55 percent in 2004 -- also featured another statewide loser of a Republican nominee, dairy magnate Jim Oberweis.

Oberweis brought his own complete set of Samsonite into the race, Democrats dubbed him "the Milk Dud," and the voters went with now-Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill.

In both of these cases, again, there were unique circumstances: tough GOP primaries produced weak, ideological candidates.

Had Republicans been able to nominate better candidates in each case, they might have held onto the seats. To their credit, the National Republican Congressional Committee folks understood from the beginning that they faced significant challenges in both districts.

Another special election is coming up May 13 for the 1st District seat in Mississippi previously held by Republican Roger Wicker, who was appointed to the Senate. Democrat Travis Childers, a Chancery Court Clerk for Prentiss County, ran ahead of Republican Greg Davis, the Mayor of Southhaven, in the first round of balloting but failed to obtain the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff.

It is important to note that under Mississippi special election law, this was a nonpartisan election, and their parties were not on the ballot.

That Childers, the Democrat, ran ahead of Davis, the Republican, was viewed with considerable interest elsewhere. Was this another sign of how weak the Republican Party had gotten -- that even a Mississippi district Bush had won with 59 and 62 percent in 2000 and 2004, respectively, could go Democrat?

As is often the case, there are unusual circumstances besides the nonpartisan nature of the election in this district. Davis is from the section of the district comprised pretty much of Memphis, Tenn., suburbs. Childers is from the non-Memphis, or one might say anti-Memphis, part of the district. This situation has a lot more to do with geography than partisan politics.

But at the same time, both districts were and are heavily Republican. If Bush were more popular, if the Republican brand were not as dented and tarnished as it is today, Republicans would likely have won both, even with badly flawed candidates.

Much is being made of the fact that Republicans aired advertising tying the Democratic candidates in Louisiana and Mississippi to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill, and his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, despite the fact that there is no evidence that either Democrat ever met Obama or Wright.

Republicans are arguing that the ads took what would have been a Democratic runaway election and turned it close. Democrats are arguing that the ads didn't work. I never saw any polls showing a Cazayoux landslide. Indeed, the polls in the closing weeks were fairly close to the actual election result.

The thing to remember is that when times for a party are bad, they don't tend to get many breaks. When times are good, they do.

When a party is riding high in the polls, has a popular president, it can nominate flawed or inferior candidates and still win in favorable and often, even in neutral districts.

But when times are bad, they can even lose with superior and unblemished candidates in neutral or bad districts and have considerably lower chances of prevailing in good districts when their candidates are not up to snuff.