There’s a reason they’re called “special” elections.
But Tuesday’s contest to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was particularly unique. Local sympathies worked against Republican nominee Jesse Kelly, who lost to Rep.-elect Ron Barber (D) by 7 points. Barber, along with Giffords, was shot in a Tucson supermarket parking lot in January 2011.
But in other ways, the Arizona race wasn’t all that special. Democrats and Republicans invested six figures in the district’s single media market and pushed national messages on television, and both parties anticipated massive third-party spending and minimal turnout.
Most importantly, Barber’s victory only cements this already-certain fact: House Democrats are better at winning special elections than Republicans. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has claimed victory in 12 out of the 14 most competitive special elections for the House since 2006.
Here are Roll Call’s lessons learned from Tucson and beyond:
1. Special Elections Aren’t Always Worth the Investment
It’s easy to say in hindsight that the National Republican Congressional Committee could have saved $878,000 by staying out of the Arizona race. But the initial poll numbers showed it could compete there.
Truth be told, both parties have a track record of spending heavily in recent special elections when the results showed it probably wasn’t necessary.
As recently as January, the DCCC dumped $1.3 million in the special election to replace former Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.). Its candidate, Suzanne Bonamici, won by a 14-point margin.
And last September in Nevada, the NRCC spent $600,000 to boost its candidate in the special election for now-Sen. Dean Heller’s (R) seat. Mark Amodei, the GOP nominee, won by a whopping 22 points.
This cycle, the House campaign committees have spent a combined $4.46 million on six special elections. Each party flipped control of one seat, canceling out any gains.
The parties would rather be safe than sorry. But is all that money really worth the ounce of momentum received from a predictable special election victory? Maybe not every time.
2. Buy Airtime Early
Congressional committees and outside groups are reserving fall airtime as early as possible for good reason. There’s little risk and big reward.
Ad buyers get cheaper rates and better placement if they reserve early. By law, candidates will get airtime at a good rate in the weeks leading up to an election. If a station doesn’t have enough airtime, often the last buyer to reserve it is the first to have their spot taken down to free up airtime.
Most importantly, buyers can cancel purchases and move buys with minimal penalties until close to the air date. And sometimes, heavy spending will scare the competition out of the race.