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Will special elections predict House power shift?

If Democrat Kathy Hochul wins next Tuesday’s special election in a New York’s 26 Congressional District, a district that has been Republican for years, will it be a harbinger of Republicans losing the House majority in 2012?
Image: Jane Corwin, Kathy Hochul
Candidates for next Tuesday's special election in New York's 26th Congressional District: Republican Jane Corwin, left, and Democrat Kathy Hochul. A third party candidate Jack Davis will also be on the ballot.Derek Gee / AP

If Democrat Kathy Hochul wins next Tuesday’s special election in a New York’s 26th Congressional District — one that's voted Republican for years — will it be a harbinger of the GOP losing the House in 2012?

A Hochul win might be a leading indicator — but it would likely take two or three more special elections resulting in a net gain for Democrats, to provide persuasive evidence of a shift.

There are going to be two more special House elections this year to fill vacancies, one in California in July, for a seat held by Democrat Jane Harman and another in Nevada in September for the seat vacated by Republican Dean Heller, who he was appointed to the Senate to replace scandal-plagued John Ensign.

In the battle for New York’s 26th Congressional District, Hochul is running to fill the vacancy created when Republican Rep. Chris Lee quit after shirtless photos and allegations of extramartial Craigslist solicitations surfaced.

Heavy investment in special election
Hochul faces Republican Jane Corwin and Democrat-turned-Tea Party candidate Jack Davis. As of May 4, Davis had received no campaign contributions, but did lend his campaign $1.6 million from his own fortune.

The political parties and outside groups have invested millions of dollars in the race. The conservative group American Crossroads has spent nearly $700,000 since May 11 on advertising. A Democratic group called House Majority PAC has spent $284,000 on the contest, with labor unions and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund also investing money to help Hochul.

It would be demoralizing for Republicans to lose what had been a Republican seat since Jack Kemp held it in the 1970s. But it’s a three-way race, making it a more ambiguous indicator than a pure head-to-head contest between a Democrat and a Republican.

And redistiricting is likely to eliminate one of the upstate New York seats now held by one of the first-term Republicans. Victory Tuesday might be short-lived.

Special elections resulting in party switches do have predictive value, according to newly published research by Tom Brunell, professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas and graduate student David Smith.

Brunell and Smith studied every House special election between 1900 and 2008.

When special elections predict November
They found that “when a party picks up more seats in a set of special elections than the other party gains, the more successful party can usually count on picking up seats in the next general election.” Their research was published in the latest issue of Legislative Studies Quarterly.

They found that when the Republicans have a net gain in special elections, they win seats in the following general election two-thirds of the time. “For the Democrats, the relationship is even stronger: when they take seats away from the Republicans in the special elections, Democrats follow up with a seat gain in the general election 82.35 percent of the time.”

For every net seat gain by a party in a special election, the party can expect to pick up on average more than six seats in the following general election.

But as they note, most special elections don’t indicate any trend at all because in most cases Democrats keep what had been safe Democratic districts and Republicans win what had been safe GOP districts.

For instance, when Democrat Hilda Solis resigned from the House to become secretary of labor in 2009, there was no doubt that Democrat Judy Chu would win her seat. Her Los Angeles-area district is one of the most Democratic in the nation. Only 10 percent of the registered voters bothered to cast ballots in the special election.

Why political junkies pay attention
But in cases such as next Tuesday’s special, political junkies pay attention for good reason.

University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie, who had studied special elections, said, “When they occur, they behave just like regular open seat elections,” that is, House races on the regular November ballot where an incumbent has decided to not run again and new candidates are vying for the seat.

“In highly competitive districts, a change in control that happens in a special election would probably have happened under the same set of circumstances in November,” Gaddie said. “Open seats should be more vulnerable to national tides because of the absence of incumbents — and they are.”

He added that any House seat in which an incumbent wins under 60 percent of the vote has a good chance of being competitive if the incumbent doesn’t run.

Gaddie added that in order for a House seat to have the potential to switch, “neither major party should be much above 53 percent in the average of the previous two presidential votes in the district.”

In the New York district which is up for grabs in next Tuesday’s election, the average Republican percentage of the vote in the 2004 and 2008 elections was 53 percent. So it is competitive turf.

Watergate elections of 1974
Probably the most famous examples of predictive elections were the special elections in 1974, when four reliable Republican House districts all went Democratic, including one in Grand Rapids, Mich., that had been held by Gerald Ford who resigned in order to become Richard Nixon’s vice president.

Nixon was facing an impeachment investigation by the House after the Watergate burglary and subsequent cover-up. Ford replaced Spiro Agnew who had resigned in a bribery scandal.

The last of those special Watergate-influenced special elections came in April of 1974 when Democrat Bob Traxler beat Republican James Sparling in a district in Michigan that hadn’t elected a Democrat since 1932.

Traxler linked Sparling to Nixon by noting that he'd worked in the Nixon White House as a legislative aide. Traxler told voters if Sparling won, Nixon would say “See, I told you. All’s well with the country. Those people out their put their stamp on me by electing my former employee.”

Traxler did get a boost from the 1971 reapportionment that put a heavily Democratic county in the district. But pundits saw his win as a sign of doom for Republicans. “No Republican should assume he has a safe seat anymore,” said Sen. Robert Griffin, R- Mich., the day after Traxler’s victory.

And sure enough in the 1974 elections, after Nixon resigned and Ford pardoned him, Democrats gained 43 House seats, pushing them to 291 seats (compared to 192 today).

Evidence of historic shifts
Special elections can also signify historic partisan shifts in particular districts: In May of 1994 Republicans won special elections in Kentucky and Oklahoma, taking districts that had long held by Democrats, but which had trended Republican in presidential elections.

The death of the Democratic incumbent in Kentucky and the resignation of the Democrat in Oklahoma finally gave Republicans a chance to win the seats — and they have remained Republican ever since.

Then there are those special elections that dash one party’s expectations.

In the weeks after the Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted in early 1998, Republicans began to think they’d make big gains in the House in the November elections.

All eyes were on the special election in California’s 22nd congressional district. Republicans Michael Huffington and Andrea Seastrand had held the seat from 1992 to 1996. Democrat Walter Capps beat Seastrand in 1996, but he died soon after.

Pundits wondered if the special election – which pitted Capps’s widow Lois against Republican Tom Bordonaro would show voter disgust with Clinton.

Lois Capps did have certain advantages: she was the widow of the previous incumbent and in such cases widows usually win. And the Republicans were weakened by a bitter primary in which Speaker Newt Gingrich supported Bordonaro’s pro-abortion rights rival.

But Capps’s victory, with 53 percent, provided evidence that no matter what the Lewinsky damage might be to Clinton himself, it wasn't fatal to Democratic candidates. That was borne  out the following November when Republicans lost five seats, instead of making the gains they'd expected.