Politics & Policy

Don’t Sleep on 2017 Special Elections

(Reuters photo: Larry Downing)
They may not be the most glamorous of contests, but the races for open House seats are still worth keeping an eye on.

Special elections for U.S. House seats are like spring training for political parties: They’re early, they rarely have enormous consequences, and they represent a chance for rested political muscles to stretch, limber up, and get ready for the bigger contests ahead.

They also tend to attract unusually lower voter interest and turnout, providing opportunities for the two parties to win seats they ordinarily would have no shot at winning. Two good recent examples are Republican Charles Djou’s 2010 win in Hawaii’s First District, which the Cook Partisan Voting Index rates as 18 points bluer than the average district, and Republican Robert Turner’s 2011 victory in Anthony Weiner’s old New York City district, which is 31 points bluer according to the CPVI. Djou subsequently lost his bid for a full term, and Turner decided to run for another office instead, meaning that their special elections essentially allowed the GOP to borrow two otherwise-unwinnable seats for a year or so.

If all of President Trump’s appointees are confirmed, there will be at least five special House elections in the coming months. On paper, none of these contests seem particularly competitive, but given the unpredictability inherent to low-turnout contests, it would be a mistake to assume that their outcomes will preserve the status quo.

Representative Mike Pompeo resigned to become director of the CIA, leaving an open seat in Kansas’s fourth congressional district, which includes Wichita and the surrounding suburbs. Make no mistake: This is a red district. It rates R+14, according to the CPVI, and hasn’t been held by a Democrat since 1995. A small crowd of GOP candidates will compete for the nomination to replace Pompeo at a nominating convention on February 9. Democrats appear to have found a candidate in former state representative and state treasurer Dennis McKinney, who is likely prepared for the headwinds he’ll face as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district; after all, he survived a Category Five tornado in his bathtub.

In California’s 34th district, Representative Xavier Becerra resigned to become attorney general of California, and the political math heavily favors Democrats in the race to replace him: Hillary Clinton won 83 percent of the district’s vote in November, compared with just under 11 percent for Trump. At this point, 17 Democrats, two Republicans, and one Green-party candidate will appear on the April 4 special-primary ballot. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff election held June 6.

In Georgia, Representative Tom Price is expected to resign to become Trump’s secretary of health and human services, leaving open his sixth-district seat, which represents the northern suburbs of Atlanta and is rated R+12 by the CPVI. A small army of candidates is either running or expressing interest in the contest, which is a “jungle primary” much like the race to replace Becerra. Potential Republican candidates include former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel, state senator Judson Hill of Marietta, former state senator Dan Moody, Johns Creek councilman Bob Gray, Dunwoody businessman Bruce Levell, Roswell businessman Kurt Wilson, Cobb County economist Mohammad Ali Bhuiyan, and state representative Betty Price, Tom Price’s wife. Democratic candidates include former state representative Sally Harrell, former congressional aide Jon Ossoff, and former state senator Ron Slotin. The primary and general election dates will not be set until Price is confirmed.

If there is indeed a massive grassroots mobilization of anti-Trump voters in the works, its first glimmers should be seen in this year’s races.

In Montana, Representative Ryan Zinke is expected to resign to become Trump’s secretary of the interior, leaving the state’s lone House seat empty. But his delayed confirmation has put the party conventions that will select candidates to replace him on hold. On paper, this is the Democrats’ best shot to win a special election in 2017, as Zinke’s seat is rated just R+7, and Montana’s governor, lieutenant governor, and one of its two senators are Democrats.

In South Carolina’s fifth district, Mick Mulvaney is expected to resign to become director of the Office of Management and Budget, leaving his seat open. The district is rated R+9 by the CPVI, but it was represented by Democrat John Spratt from 1983 to 2011. Announced Republican candidates include Camden attorney Tom Mullikin, state representative Ralph Norman, education activist Sheri Few, and attorney Kris Wampler; state representative Tommy Pope of York is another possible candidate. The election dates will be determined by the date of Mulvaney’s resignation; the primary is likely to be held on a Tuesday in late April and the general election in mid June.

There are also 13 special elections currently scheduled in state legislatures. These are not the most glamorous of contests, but as Republican success at the state level during the Obama years demonstrates, they can be consequential. If there is indeed a massive grassroots mobilization of anti-Trump voters in the works, its first glimmers should be seen in this year’s races.

Between the Women’s March on Washington, pro-refugee rallies at the nation’s airports, and other high-profile anti-Trump protests, it certainly seems like there’s a new urgency and energy on the left. But some progressive activists worry that energy will peter out as it has before. Mike Gecan is the co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a network of local faith- and community-based organizations. In a recent New York Daily News piece, he wondered if we’re witnessing a rerun of Democrats’ futile efforts against Scott Walker over the past four years.

“The Walker team and the Trump team know this dirty little secret about progressive Democrats: They love the long pass to the quicksilver wide receiver, but have no stomach for the hard slog that occurs in the trenches,” Gecan wrote.

The first test in those trenches comes this year. Are national Democrats paying attention?

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