Off-Year Specials Often Provide No Tea Leaves

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 3, 2009 · 12:05 AM EDT

Special elections this early in the cycle are generally poor predictors of a party’s future electoral success or failure in the next general. But it doesn’t matter who wins today’s special election in New York’s 20th district, breathless over-analysis will rule the day.

Those who want to look to tonight’s results for a glimpse at what November 2010 might bring should wait until next year.

In 1993 — the year before the watershed election that saw House Republicans sweep into the majority with a net gain of 52 seats — the incumbent party won all five special elections and maintained the partisan status quo.

That year Democrats held California’s 17th district, vacated by Rep. Leon Panetta to become Budget director, and Mississippi’s 2nd district, vacated by Rep. Mike Espy to become Agriculture secretary. They won each contest by 10 points.

Republicans held onto the late Rep. Paul Henry’s (Mich.) seat, while Cincinnati attorney Rob Portman easily kept Ohio’s 2nd district in GOP hands after Rep. Bill Gradison resigned and left for the private sector.

The special election in Wisconsin’s 1st district was much more competitive after Rep. Les Aspin (D) left to become secretary of Defense, but Democrats held his seat as well. Republican Mark Neumann, who ran against Aspin in 1992 and received 41 percent, came 675 votes short in the special election against Democrat Peter Barca in a district that Bill Clinton carried 41 percent to 35 percent in 1992. Neumann came back to defeat Barca in the November 1994 general election.

Republicans did take over the Texas seat vacated by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) in a June 1993 special, but it wasn’t until the 1994 special elections in the House that the eventual Republican wave began to become evident.

Democrats held a 2-1 voter registration edge in Oklahoma’s 6th district but lost the seat when Rep. Glenn English (D) left for the private sector, and then-state Rep. Frank Lucas won the May 1994 special election by eight points.

And when Rep. Bill Natcher (D-Ky.) passed away, Republican Ron Lewis won his seat by defeating former state Sen. Joseph Prather (D) by 10 points.

More recently, in 2007, the incumbent party won all five House special elections — which were all in relatively safe districts that were drawn to the advantage of one party.

Republicans held seats in Georgia, Ohio and Virginia, while Democrats maintained control of seats in California and in Massachusetts’ 5th district — the only competitive one of the bunch. Republican nominee Jim Ogonowski generated some excitement when he held Niki Tsongas (D) to a 51 percent to 46 percent victory in the Bay State race.

But Republicans went on to lose three seats in special elections in 2008 (in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi) and then had a net loss of an additional 21 seats in November.

The incumbent party also won all three of the House special elections in 2005, and Republicans even held California’s 50th district seat in a June 2006 special — when Rep. Duke Cunningham (R) was headed to jail — but still lost 30 seats later that year.

But even if the results of today’s special election in upstate New York offer no bankable trends, the two candidates were campaigning furiously in the final hours, and neither party was boldly predicting victory.

Republican James Tedisco, the state Assembly Minority Leader, was planning to stump through the night Monday straight through to this afternoon, dropping in on a paper mill in Glens Falls, diners and other late-night hangouts throughout the district. He interrupted his campaign day to appear at a news conference at the state Capitol on Monday afternoon with fellow Republicans critical of the budget deal just crafted by Gov. David Paterson (D) and Democratic legislative leaders.

In a special election with a small turnout, voters’ ire toward Paterson’s budget plan could prove to be a plus for Tedisco.

Businessman Scott Murphy, the Democratic nominee, was scheduled to make five stops Monday. He campaigned Sunday with New York’s two Democratic Senators: Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, the woman he hopes to replace in Congress. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) was also on hand at certain stops on Sunday, and on Saturday Murphy was joined at a rally by three Democratic Congressmen who represent adjoining upstate New York districts: Reps. John Hall, Maurice Hinchey and Paul Tonko.

The Murphy campaign was also sending robocalls recorded by Gillibrand, who remains highly popular in the district, into voters’ homes Monday. Tedisco was countering with robocalls from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) and 1950s heartthrob Pat Boone.

Although Republicans have a 70,000 voter enrollment advantage in the 20th district, Democrats have been making gains there in recent election cycles, and the last public poll on the race, released Friday, showed Murphy clinging to a slim 4-point margin. Recent private polls taken for both parties have shown the race to be very close.