Five for Fighting: Parties Gear Up For Handful of Special Elections

Posted October 29, 2003 at 6:45pm

A relatively uneventful fight for control of the House is likely to get a seismic shock early next year, with the possibility of five competitive special elections in the offing.

Kentucky’s 6th district, Louisiana’s 3rd and 7th, California’s 3rd and South Dakota’s at-large House seat are all the subject of rampant speculation in Washington and active positioning among would-be candidates. Four of the five seats are currently held by Republicans.

With the ever-dwindling number of competitive seats, both House campaign committees are gearing up financially and organizationally for an early test of strength in hopes of gaining momentum going into next November.

“All of the rumored specials are on our turf, in Republican districts and districts the president won,”said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.).

House Democrats are conceding little, however, and see the special elections as a golden opportunity to reduce their current 12-seat deficit.

Already Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee political operatives have visited all five districts at least twice, according to Communications Director Kori Bernards, and the DCCC has a staffer on the ground full-time in Kentucky.

“We have been actively recruiting in all these areas, making sure we know who wants to run and who would be the best candidates,” said Bernards. “These are areas where the door is wide open for us to take these seats.”

The special elections are also likely to serve as a dry run for how much of a role the national committees will be able to play in competitive House races under the strictures the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act places on them.

“If there is a special election, this will be the first competitive one since the passage of BCRA,” Reynolds said, adding pointedly: “We have more resources than the DCCC.”

At the end of September the NRCC had $8.8 million left to spend; the DCCC had $6.4 million in the bank.

Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the organization “has no problem competing in multiple special elections should we need to.”

Privately, insiders in both parties express trepidation about the potential costs of holding these seats and warn that tough budgeting decisions will need to be made by the committee in the next few months.

History shows competitive special elections can be extremely expensive.

In 2001, the DCCC and the NRCC each spent more than $4 million on a special election in Virginia’s 4th district, far and away the most either spent on any single House race that cycle.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R) won that contest, a midcycle pickup for Republicans that presaged their six-seat gain in November 2002.

Of the five potential contests, the Kentucky race looks most certain to provide a vacancy.

Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) carries a solid lead in his gubernatorial race against state Attorney General Ben Chandler (D) going into the election Tuesday.

If Fletcher emerges victorious, he would be sworn in Dec. 8 and, according to GOP sources, declare the seat vacant the next day. Under state law, he could call a special election no sooner than 35 days from the date the vacancy becomes official. That timeline would mean a special election in late January or February 2004.

Already one candidate — Fayette County Attorney Margaret Kannensohn (D) — has formed an exploratory committee to begin raising money for the race. Other Democrats mentioned include state Sens. Ernesto Scorsone and R.J. Palmer, state Rep. Susan Westrom and state Treasurer Jonathan Miller.

Some Democrats are fearful, though, that if Fletcher runs up a double-digit victory, they may struggle to recruit a top-tier candidate.

On the Republican side, Fletcher gubernatorial campaign manager Daniel Groves, state Sens. Alice Forgy Kerr and Tom Buford, state Rep. Stan Lee and state party Chairwoman Ellen Williams are interested.

Despite the cavalcade of would-be candidates there will be no party primaries, as each side’s executive committee will be tasked with choosing the nominee.

Each county in the district will have a weighted vote based on the percentage of registered party voters in its area. The candidate who receives a simple plurality of executive committee votes will be the nominee.

The seat is one of the most competitive in the state. After redistricting, President Bush would have taken 55 percent of the vote there in 2000, and Fletcher has held it relatively easily since 1998. But, prior to Fletcher’s open-seat win, then Rep. Scotty Baesler (D) represented the area for three terms.

In expectation of a special election, the NRCC recently formed the Kentucky-6 Republican General Election Committee, a fund designed to solicit hard-dollar donations for the eventual nominee. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) is leading that fundraising effort.

In Louisiana political circles, rumors have run hot and heavy about the futures of Sen. John Breaux (D) as well as those of Reps. Chris John (D) and Billy Tauzin (R).

For now, all eyes are on the gubernatorial race between Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) and former Health and Human Services official Bobby Jindal (R). The outcome of that race on Nov. 15 will likely cause several dominoes to fall.

If Blanco wins, many observers expect Breaux to resign his seat, allowing the new Democratic governor to appoint John — a longtime Breaux protégé — to the Senate.

The rumor has grown so widespread that outgoing Gov. Mike Foster (R) on his weekly radio show accused Breaux of endorsing Blanco solely to “rig” the appointment of John.

That scenario would create a vacancy in the 7th district, a southwestern Louisiana seat closely divided along partisan lines.

Bush would have taken 55 percent there in 2000, slightly better than the 53 percent of the vote he received statewide.

State Rep. Gil Pinac (D) would likely have the tacit support of Breaux and John as all three — as well as former Gov. Edwin Edwards — are from the same hometown of Crowley.

Other Democrats mentioned are state Sen. Willie Mount, Appeals Court judge Ned Doucet, state party Chairman Mike Skinner and state Rep. Eric LaFleur, whom one Democratic source flatteringly compared to the title character — a bowling alley lawyer — of NBC’s television show “Ed.” Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach (D) is also a possibility.

The leading Republican would likely be state Sen. Mike Michot, although Lafayette Parish school board member David Thibodeaux is also mentioned. Thibodeaux ran for the open seat in 1996, missing out on a runoff slot by just eight votes. Michot has served in the state Senate since 1995 and helped raise large amounts of money from the district for the 2002 Senate campaign of Suzanne Haik Terrell (R).

Just to the east of the 7th district, candidates are already lining up for a likely special election to replace 3rd district Rep. Billy Tauzin (R), who is expected to step down in the near future and accept a job as the president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

State Rep. Hunt Downer (R), who placed fifth in the 2003 gubernatorial primary, is the leading candidate to replace Tauzin and would likely have the support of the Congressman.

Republicans believe a Downer candidacy would keep many high-profile Democrats in the district from running, although several have voiced an interest.

State Rep. Gary Smith, American Sugar Cane Association President Charlie Melancon and state Sen. Reggie Dupre have all signaled an interest in the Democratic nomination.

In both Louisiana districts, the power to determine when to declare the seat vacant and when the open primary and runoff (if necessary) will be held lies entirely with the governor.

Some Republicans are nervous that if Blanco wins she could set the specials for March 7, which would coincide with the state Democratic presidential primary.

The situations in South Dakota and California are much more fluid.

Even Republicans admit they have little idea what Rep. Bill Janklow (R) plans to do after being charged with second-degree manslaughter following an Aug. 16 car accident. Janklow will stand trial on the charges in December.

If Janklow resigns, Gov. Mike Rounds (R) would have 10 days to officially declare a vacancy. The special election would take place between 80 and 90 days after the formal announcement.

South Dakota Farm Bureau Federation President Stephanie Herseth (D) is the leading candidate under any potential scenario after running a strong challenge to Janklow in 2002.

Republicans are courting former Rep. John Thune (R), though he is a more likely Senate candidate. State Sen. Larry Diedrich and former state Rep. Barb Everist are also in the mix for Republicans.

In California, Ose is set to retire in 2004, but recent talk has placed him as a potential state Agriculture secretary in the administration of Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

A special election would occur between 112 days and 199 days after the official opening, unless there is a previously scheduled election in the area within 180 days, according to the state election code. All candidates would appear on one ballot, with the top Democratic and Republican votegetter advancing to a general election.

The Sacramento-area district has a strong Republican tilt, and state Sen. Rico Oller and former Rep. Dan Lungren are already in the race for the open seat.

State Sen. Deborah Ortiz and state Rep. Darrell Steinberg are mentioned on the Democratic side.