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The Specialness of Special Elections

It was 1991. President George H.W. Bush was cruising along in the wake of the Gulf War. At one point, the president's approval rating spiked at 91 percent. Democrats floundered about, searching for a candidate in a field that included former Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-MA), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and a little-known governor from Arkansas.

Bush looked unbeatable. In fact, many lamented the pedestrian nature of the choices for Democrats. Others fretted about what this meant for American democracy if one of the major parties was unable to run a muscular candidate.

Few paid much attention to the May appointment of Democrat Harris Wofford to the Senate after the tragic death of Sen. John Heinz (R-PA) in a plane crash.

Almost no one gave Wofford a chance in a special election scheduled that November. After all, Wofford faced Republican Dick Thornburgh, a former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General. Many believed Thornburgh's election to the Senate was a fait accompli.

And then, in dramatic fashion, Wofford stymied Thornburgh in the special election by ten points. James Carville and Paul Begala ran Wofford's campaign, underscoring issues like health care and a stagnant economy that resonated in a battleground state like Pennsylvania.

Wofford's unexpected win was the first signal that Mr. Bush had an Achilles Heel. Over the next year Carville and Begala appropriated the same thematics from the Wofford campaign to exploit the president's vulnerabilities as they toiled for then-presidential contender Bill Clinton.

As they say, the rest is history.

The Wofford upset served as a bellwether of things to come in 1992. Clinton showed Bush the door and Democrats gained seats in the House and Senate.

And no one ever viewed special elections through the same prism again.

The "Wofford Defeats Thornburgh" phenomenon ushered in a new era for special elections. Political strategists, pundits and the media no longer simply reported the results of a special election. They then studied these special elections for clues as to the mood of the electorate (especially in key states or Congressional districts) and parsed the results for indicators which could signal particular strengths or weaknesses for parties and candidates alike.

Which is precisely why everyone is all over the special election victories this week of Reps. Bob Turner (R-NY) and Mark Amodei (R-NV). Republicans trumpeted the victories as a repudiation of President Obama's policies in the shadow of his speech on the economy before a Joint Session of Congress.

"This election sends Democrats another warning that Democrats up and down the ballot next year cannot escape accountability for their failed economic policies," said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), head of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC).

Particularly vexing for Democrats is the loss in New York. Just a few days before that special election, a key Republican strategist conceded to me that the GOP would make that contest close, but expected to still fall short. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) declared the 9th Congressional District seat vacant after the resignation of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) in June. Party leaders pressured Weiner to step down after he sent lewd Tweets to women and then lied about it to the press and his colleagues.

Democrats hold a three-to-one voting registration in New York's 9th Congressional district, which snakes through Queens and Brooklyn. Prior to Turner's election, Republicans representing New York City in Congress were practically unheard of except on Staten Island. But President Obama underperformed in Weiner's district compared to previous Democratic presidential candidates. And Weiner's re-election numbers had slipped some, too.

The seat in Nevada's 2nd Congressional District had been vacant since Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) appointed its representative, now-Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), to the Senate earlier this year, following the resignation of Sen. John Ensign (R-NV).

That sprawling Nevada Congressional district has long been Republican turf, consuming practically every square mile of the state outside of Las Vegas and its immediate suburbs. Mr. Obama won Nevada in the 2008 presidential sweepstakes and fought Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to a statistical tie in that district. Still, Amodei performed well in Democratic strongholds around Reno, the biggest city in the district. Such a Republican victory could portend a rough road for the president's reelection chances in a swing state like Nevada, which collects an additional electoral vote for next year's presidential race.

So, do the results of the GOP special election victories in New York and Nevada forecast a Republican year?

Or....

Do the results of the upset victory in May by Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) in an historically Republican district in western New York foreshadow Democratic victories?

Could it be that the age of 24-hour cable news - accelerated by the immediacy of Facebook and Twitter and coupled with an insatiable appetite for political news and meaning - warps these narratives into twisted omens?

In short, special elections are just that: special. Their outcomes are often predicated on turnout (which can wildly impact the result of a special election, especially when voter participation is low). On other occasions, a special election can serve as a true harbinger. A given candidate capitalizes on an issue or two which ignites the electorate (ala Harris Wofford in 1991) and can presage events to come, based on the snapshot taken in that one state or district.

A perfect example of a "special" special election unfolded in Hawaii last year.

Democrats had long held Hawaii's 1st Congressional District. And when current Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) resigned to run for that post, Republican Charles Djou squared off in a three way race between former Rep. Ed Case (D-HI) and current Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI). Many Hawaii Democrats were infuriated that Case wouldn't step aside, thus splitting the Democratic vote and electing Djou with less than 40 percent of the vote.

Never mind that President Obama carried his home state district with 70 percent of the vote in 2008. Republicans immediately jumped on Djou's success, spinning it as stomping of the president in his own backyard.

It wasn't. Djou simply benefited from local political infighting. And voters handily elected Hanabusa over Djou in the general election last fall.

In short, both political parties and certainly those in the press seek signposts in between major elections. And when the public demands more political news than ever, the parables of special elections often fill that void.

That's not to say special elections should be ignored. At one point, Democrats had a string of more than a dozen consecutive House special election victories and had taken 23 of the last 34. Two special House elections in early 2008 signaled Democrats had some potential traction in the south.

Democrats were particularly buoyed by the special election win of Rep. Travis Childers (D-MS) in 2008. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) appointed then-Rep. Roger Wicker (R-MS) to the Senate seat vacated by longtime Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS). The NRCC then infused $1.3 million into the campaign of Republican Greg Davis. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spent $1.5 million to elect Childers. Democrats ultimately won a seat in the deep south which had long been held by Republicans. Childers then dispatched Davis that fall as President Obama took the White House.

Meantime next door in Louisiana, Rep. Don Cazayoux (D-LA) beat Republican Woody Jenkins in a 2008 special election. Cazayoux was the first Democrat to hold that district since the mid-1970s. But in the general election, it's believed a third party candidate siphoned off just enough votes to help propel Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) to the winner's circle over Cazayoux.

Voters returned Cassidy to Washington in 2010.

In essence, anyone can contort any special election into a referendum on a candidate or theme.

In 1992, Sen. Wyche Fowler (D-GA) failed to collect a plurality of the vote in his general election contest against Republican Paul Coverdell. Voters had just elected Bill Clinton president. Pundits immediately touted the Georgia contest as a referendum on the yet-to-be-sworn-in president. Coverdell narrowly defeated Fowler a few days later in the runoff.

History repeated itself in 2008 when Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) faced a runoff with Democratic candidate Jim Martin. Of course voters had just sent President Obama to Washington. Chambliss won re-election. But political observers didn't attach as much significance to that runoff as they did the outcome of the Fowler-Coverdell contest.

Pundits viewed the election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) in the winter of 2010 as a rejection of the Democrats' efforts to pass health care reform.

One vacancy remains in the House of Representatives after former Rep. David Wu (D-OR) stepped aside last month after allegations of sexual misconduct with a teenage female. Republicans long thought Wu's seat was ripe for a pickup even before his alleged transgressions came to light. And you can bet that both sides are prepping their narratives for that outcome early next year.

If Republicans win, they'll tout a win in Wu's seat as a third consecutive win in special elections and portray it as a "trend." If Democrats hold Wu's seat, they'll claim they stopped the bloodletting experienced in this week's races in New York and Nevada.

Regardless, both sides will battle test messages and strategies they hope to use in 2012. Special elections are not only special. They're also laboratories, filled with political test tubes and beakers. The political alchemists try to conjure up a winning message. And if they find a formula that works, like Harris Woffords's victory in 1991, they'll trot it out in the general election in the fall.

Sometimes special elections mean a lot. Sometimes they don't. The only certainty about special elections...is that they are indeed special.

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