Why Special Elections Really Matter

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 12, 2015 · 9:43 AM EST

Special elections matter, but not for the reasons you might think.

It’s an annual sport in politics: arguing whether special elections serve as bellwethers. But while special elections often poorly portend results around the country, they can produce potential leaders. They’re also excellent predictors of voter behavior inside that particular district.

Even when special elections aren’t competitive, they are worth paying attention to because the winner could be around for awhile and climb the leadership ladder. The upcoming special election in Mississippi’s 1st District after the death of GOP Rep. Alan Nunnelee might be the latest example of a special race that is not at risk of changing partisan hands.

Fifty-eight current members of the House (13 percent) were first elected to the chamber by special election, according to CQ Roll Call research.

Republican Don Young of Alaska won a March 1973 special election to replace Democratic Rep. Nick Begich (father of former Sen. Mark Begich) who disappeared in a plane crash before the 1972 elections. Young was just re-elected to his 21st full term.

Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., won special elections in 1988. A handful of more current House members won special election races at least 20 years ago including California Democrat Sam Farr (1993), Texas Republican Sam Johnson (1991), Oklahoma Republican Frank D. Lucas (1994), New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler (1992), Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (1989), New York Democrat José E. Serrano (1990), and Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson (1993).

Other members have gone from being special election victors in partisan districts to the highest levels of House leadership. Maryland Democrat Steny H. Hoyer won a special election in 1981 and went on to become House majority leader and now minority whip. California Democrat Nancy Pelosi won a special election to 1987 and climbed to become the first female speaker.

Along with selecting potentially prominent players in the House, special elections are often indicative of future results in that particular district.

That’s bad news for Democrats, who plan to punt the yet-to-be-scheduled special election in New York’s 11th District this year but compete in the competitive seat in 2016. Democrats will be defying history if they get clobbered in the special election and come back to win the regular general election.

Looking back at 101 House special elections in the past 25 years, the same party won the special and subsequent regular election 94 percent of the time. Six times the seat switched partisan hands from the special to the general, but all were accompanied by special circumstances. You can read more about those past instances in the Feb. 6 edition of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report.

Nearly seven years ago, Democrats took over Mississippi’s 1st District in a special election after GOP Rep. Roger Wicker was appointed to GOP Sen. Trent Lott’s seat. But this year’s yet-to-be scheduled race is not likely to be competitive considering President Barack Obama topped out at 37 percent in the 2012 election.

For now, the questions are whether Mississippi will fill its seat before New York, even though GOP Rep. Michael G. Grimm resigned his seat a month ago, and whether special election victories will lead to long tenures in the House for each winner.