Looking at the recent House special election record.

Now that we’ve had some time to digest last week’s special election results – or, in the Democrats’ case, have the equivalent of a gallstone attack over them – I think that it’s a time that we look at some of the House’s special election results over the last two election cycles generally. Partially because we’re starting to get enough samples to do a laughingly pseudo-scientific analysis of them; and partially because doing so will allow us to destroy the Other Side’s laughingly pseudo-scientific analysis. Less cynically, there are general trends that might be discernible, down there in the muck.


Below the fold is a look at every special election to date in the 111th and 112th Congress. I chose not to look at the 110th Congress because I’ll readily enough concede that the net +3 Democratic gain was part of that party’s generally successful 2008 election strategy – although I note with some amusement that the three seats (IL-14, LA-06, & MS-01) all flipped back in the 2010 election, which means that it was a wash overall anyway. I also didn’t include LA-01’s flip (and flip-back), mostly because while Cao’s win looked like a special election it really wasn’t.  Likewise, it was also a wash.


Anyway, to the charts.

Election Results Switch?
Race PVI Reason Old Special Reg ’10 Special Reg ’10
NY-20 R+2 Promoted Dem Dem Rep No Yes
IL-05 D+19 Promoted Dem Dem Dem No No
CA-32 D+15 Promoted Dem Dem Dem No No
CA-10 D+11 Promoted Dem Dem Dem No No
NY-23 R+1 Promoted Rep Dem Dem Yes No
FL-19 D+15 Resigned Dem Dem Dem No No
PA-12 R+1 Died Dem Dem Dem No No
HI-01 D+11 Promoted Dem Rep Dem No Yes
GA-09 R+28 Promoted Rep Rep Rep No No
NY-29 R+5 Scandal Dem Rep Rep Yes Yes
IN-03 R+14 Scandal Rep Rep Rep No No
NY-26 R+6 Scandal Rep Dem N/A Yes N/A
CA-36 D+12 Resigned Dem Dem N/A No N/A
NV-02 R+5 Promoted Rep Rep N/A No N/A
NY-09 D+5 Scandal Dem Rep N/A Yes N/A
OR-01 D+8 Scandal Dem TBD N/A TBD N/A

And the summary:

Net Gain, 2010 Net Gain, 2012
Spec Gen Spec Gen
Dem -1 -1 0 TBD
GOP 1 1 0 TBD

The first thing that jumps out at you: for all the bragging that the Democrats did last year about how great they were at special elections – and they did a lot of bragging, mostly because it distracted them from the DOOM descending upon them – their overall record is actually not very good. People might quibble about including Eric Massa’s race (NY-26), given that the special and the general election were actually held on the same day; but that was a blatantly political ploy by then-Governor David Paterson anyway. If NY-26’s special election had not been delayed eight months the Republican candidate still would have won, in my opinion: Paterson simply didn’t want to give the GOP yet more ammunition. So… the vaunted Democratic special election machine actually lost ground, last election cycle. As the chart shows, they were excellent at holding double-digit Democratic seats. Democratic-held Republican-leaning seats? Not as good, and heavily reliant on third-party spoilers peculiar to New York. Republican-held, Republican-leaning seats? Don’t be absurd. In fact, of the eleven special elections during the 111th Congress, the only one that Democrats can take much real credit for would be PA-12 (Jack Murtha’s old seat, and one that was expected to flip). And that one is stretching the point (PA-12 is also probably going to go away, seeing as it was more or less designed for Murtha).


Second: there are five races in the above list where ‘Scandal’ (specifically, sexual scandals) was the reason for the special election. Of the four races held so far, three of them resulted in the seat flipping (the fourth, IN-03, might have flipped if the scandal was more tawdry, or if replacement Republican candidate [Marlin Stutzman*] was less popular). You can’t really generalize from there whether a sex scandal allows a political to keep a seat that’s been flipped, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be hurting a party’s chances for flipping that seat in the first place. All of this makes me wonder: is there actually a partisan advantage in making a disgraced politician resign? It doesn’t seem to have helped much in New York, at least. In fact, it may make things worse by denying the voters an opportunity to directly remove an embarrassing politician; from available evidence, said voters seem to be quite happy to punish by proxy.

All of the above leads now to the next question: assuming that the above is true, what does it mean for future special elections? Well, there’s another one coming up… at the end of January 2012. David Wu’s seat in OR-01; as you may recall, he had to resign for revealed behavior that would be politely called ‘erratic’ and impolitely called ‘insane.’ Lots of people are assuming that keeping the seat will not be a problem for the Democrats; I’m not so sure. The seat only single-digit favors the Democrats (D+8); there will probably not be a third party spoiler; and Wu’s resignation was for tawdry (and, frankly, undignified) reasons. A good candidate in that election (the primary is in November), and it just may flip. Particularly if the Democrats just keep telling themselves that the seat could flip, instead of actually believing it…


Moe Lane (crosspost)

[*Yes, that was an impressive mangling of the man’s name. Thanks to toothpick in comments for catching it.]


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