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Special-Election Frenzy Starts Tuesday

Who says Congress isn’t an enviable gig anymore? Not the dozens of candidates running in several crowded special elections this fall.

Sure, members have historically low approval ratings and gridlock permeates the most mundane legislation. But across the country, candidates are lining up to come to Capitol Hill.

A low-profile primary Tuesday in Alabama will start a frenzy of special elections in the next couple of months — including as many as three races in one week in October. The full calendar includes a safe Democratic House seat in Massachusetts, plus two safe Republican House seats in Alabama and Louisiana. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, is expected to win a special election for Senate in New Jersey.

“Congressional seats don’t always come open,” said GOP consultant Guy Harrison, who was executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2010 and 2012. “These [special elections are in] areas that have been fairly well held by each party, and there are a lot of people underneath these power structures that have been interested in rising up the ladder for some period of time. So when they open up, there’s usually a lot of interest.”

Special elections are especially attractive for ambitious local pols because the barriers to entry are so low. They are shorter races, lasting only a few months compared with the slog of a typical two-year cycle. Special elections often cost less, too, and local lawmakers rarely have to give up their current offices to run in them.

It’s been a popular path to Capitol Hill for decades. Seventy-four members of this Congress first came to office via special election, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and 20-term Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

This fall’s four special-election victors will bring the group of members elected in special contests to nearly 15 percent of Congress.

Tuesday’s primary in Alabama’s deeply conservative 1st District marks the first special election on the fall calendar. The race will eventually choose a successor to former Rep. Jo Bonner, a Republican who resigned in August to take a job with the University of Alabama system.

In Alabama, candidates must receive at least 50 percent of the vote to win an election outright. But with five top-tier candidates and a handful of other Republicans running in this deep red district, it’s almost assured this race will head to a Nov. 5 runoff.

Republicans expect former state Sen. Bradley Byrne to take the first-place spot in the primary. Yellowhammer State strategists say the second runoff spot is a tossup between former Republican National Committee aide Wells Griffith, newspaper columnist Quin Hillyer, state Rep. Chad Fincher and businessman Dean Young. All four have built-in geographic bases and have raised enough money to compete.

“It’s a tight race for second place; you can flip a coin to decide who it will be,” Alabama GOP Chairman Bill Armistead said. “When you get down to it, the bottom line is whoever has the best ground game will get that second-place spot.”

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