Tales of Special Elections Past

The question of the night, as most eyes turn to NY-9 and some eyes turn to NV-2, is “Will this special election be a bellwether for anything?” The answer: Sort of. Special elections are flukes, but not without meaning, and I will be back tonight to cover the results.

Before that, it’s worth looking back at the other special elections for the House in the Obama era. (I’ve skipped the ones that happened on election day 2010.) What did they end up meaning? How much did their results reflect the mood of the country?

March 31, 2009: NY-20
The battlefield: Mostly white (91.5 percent!), fairly wealthy towns and rural areas in the Albany area. Obama won it by 3 points; Bush won it by 8. Vacated by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
The candidates: Jim Tedisco (R), the GOP’s leader in the state Assembly; Scott Murphy (D), a venture capitalist.
The winner: Murphy, by less than 1000 votes.
The reasons: Barack Obama was riding high, with a 65 percent approval rating in the district according to Siena; it was a bad time for a referendum against him. Tedisco’s gaffes were all about his opposition to the Economic Recovery Act, which was not yet unpopular.
Did the GOP win in 2010? Yes, easily.

April 7, 2009: IL-5
The battlefield:
The north side of Chicago, formerly home to Rep. Rod Blagojevich and Rep. Rahm Emanuel. Demographically diverse (60 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic), and strongly Democratic – Obama won 73 percent here, and John Kerry won 67 percent.
The candidates: Mike Quigley (D), a Cook County commissioner; Rosanna Pulido (R), an anti-illegal immigration activist.
The winner: Quigley by a landslide.
The reasons: Safe seat!
Did the GOP win in 2010? No. Quigley expanded on his margin.

July 14, 2009: CA-32
The battlefield:
East Los Angeles, safe Democratic turf: 68 percent for Obama, 62 percent for Kerry. Although Hilda Solis had vacated the seat, and it was 64.2 percent Hispanic, it became a battle between two Asian politicians.
The candidates: Judy Chu (D), board of equalization member; Betty Chu (R), city councilwoman, and her cousin.
The winner: Chu by 29 points.
The reasons: Safe seat!
Did she hold it in 2010? Yes. Chu won by 42 points.

November 3, 2009: CA-10
The battlefield: The East Bay, racially diverse (53 percent white) and liberal. Vacated by Ellen Tauscher when she joined the State Department. Obama won it with 65 percent; Kerry won with 59 percent.
The candidates: Lieutenant Gov. John Garamendi (D), Republican lawyer David Harmer.
The winner: Garamendi by 10 points.
The reasons: A solid campaign by a known quantity in a liberal area; Republicans didn’t want to spend what it took to compete.
Did he hold it in 2010? Yes. Garamendi won by a bigger margin.

The battlefield:
The north country of New York, a collection of small towns with lower salaries but the same demographics as NY-20. Obama had won by 5 points; Bush had won by 4.
The candidates: Attorney Bill Owens (D), Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (R), businessman Doug Hoffman (C)
The winner: Owens in a three-way race with 48 percent of the vote.
The reasons: It’s complicated. Hoffman surged with conservative support, taking advantage of Scozzafava’s liberal views on unions (her husband was a local union leader) and health care. She dropped out of the race and, after courting from Democrats, endorsed Owens. With her name still on the ballot, Owens was able to grind out a win. Democrats got a false hope that the Tea Party would spoil things for the GOP. These hopes were dashed two months later in Massachussetts.
Did he hold it? Yep. Funny story, actually: Hoffman ran again, angrily stayed on the ballot as a Conservative, and spoiled the election for the next GOP candidate.

May 18, 2010: PA-12
The battlefield: Western Pennsylvania, John Murtha’s district, a relatively poor area, and the only one to vote for Kerry in 2004 and McCain in 2008.
The candidates: Murtha aide Mark Critz (D), businessman Tim Burns (R).
The winner: Critz by 7 points.
The reasons: Democrats made the campaign all about Burns’s support for tax loopholes “for businesses that ship jobs overseas.” Government spending was not a galvanizing Republican issue in an area where government spending is a huge job engine. Plus, the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate occured on the same day, and voters overwhelmed the GOP.
Did the GOP win in 2010? No, but it was close: Critz’s margin shrank to 2 points.

May 22, 2010: HI-01
The battlefield:
Honolulu, the most Republican part of the state, which is relative: Kerry only won it by 6 points, but Obama won it by 42.
The candidates: Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou (R), former Rep. Ed Case (D), state senator Coleen Hanabusa (D).
The winner: Djou in a three-way with 40 percent.
The reasons: Republicans and third party groups cleverly drove down Case’s numbers, making sure that no Democrat could outmatch Djou in a first-of-its-kind mail-in election with no primary.
Did he hold it in 2010? No. In a two-way race, Hanabusa beat him by 6 points.

May 24, 2011: NY-26
The battlefield:
The western suburbs of New York, which John McCain narrowly carried in 2008. The seat opened when Chris Lee resigned after his flirtations on Craiglist (he was married, and not a 40-year-old lobbyist; the profile said otherwise) were revealed by Gawker.
The candidates: Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul (D), Assemblywoman Jane Corwin (R), businessman and frequent candidate Jack Davis.
The winner: Hochul by 5 points.
The reasons: Hochul, an extremely adept pol (she’d previously been thought of as a candidate for county executive), managed to win a district she didn’t live in as Davis made a play for the anti-Washington vote, and Corwin got boxed in on the Ryan plan. Her demo argument, that to not support the Ryan plan was to support the slow death of Medicare, didn’t fly. She got entangled for days in a silly story involving a campaign aide coming up to Davis with a video camera, asking him why he dodged the debate, and getting shoved away.