Will Early Races Set Nov. Trends?

Posted January 16, 2004 at 9:53am

The two most important names in divining House Democrats’ electoral prospects in 2004 may not be Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, but rather Stephanie Herseth and Ben Chandler.

Herseth and Chandler will carry the Democratic mantle in special House elections for South Dakota’s at-large seat (June 1) and Kentucky’s 6th district (Feb. 17), respectively, and victories by both would represent a historic takeover of seats mid-cycle for House Democrats, giving them a much-needed boost heading into November.

History, however, does not bode well for Democratic prospects in these special elections.

Not since 1994, when Republicans netted two House seats in special elections, has one party picked up more than a single seat in non-general election races. Democrats haven’t done so in the past 30 years.

In fact, in the past two decades, only eight of 66 special elections resulted in a party switch, with Democrats picking up two seats and Republicans six.

In the past four cycles, the gains have been even more miniscule, with only Virginia’s 4th district switching partisan control since 1998.

That 2001 race, which was set off by the death of Democratic Rep. Norm Sisisky, saw both parties spend more than $4 million in their efforts to win the election.

Now-Rep. Randy Forbes (R), then a state Senator, defeated fellow state Sen. Louise Lucas (D) 52 percent to 48 percent.

“We win tough races,” said Carl Forti, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We have better people, and we have more money.”

Financial firepower plays an even more crucial role in these often-abbreviated elections than in a typical two-year campaign for the House.

Reaching voters through television and radio advertising is essential to any special election, because the candidates have significantly less time to spend on the stump building a grassroots network.

Through November, the NRCC had $8.6 million on hand to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s $5.2 million.

But despite this financial disparity, this cycle presents Democrats a unique opportunity to reverse the recent special election trend, as both of their candidates carry huge name-identification advantages over their GOP opponents.

In Kentucky’s 6th district, Chandler is seeking the House seat after an unsuccessful run for governor in 2003, a race won by Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R), who resigned the seat late last year.

Even Republicans admit that Chandler, a former state attorney general, entered the House race with near universal name identification and was thought of positively by roughly two-thirds of voters. His grandfather was a former Kentucky governor.

Republicans have selected state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr as their candidate.

Coming off a surprisingly strong race against Rep. Bill Janklow (R-S.D.) in 2002, Herseth also benefits from a long political lineage in the state. Her father was a state Senator who ran unsuccessfully for governor in the 1980s, while her grandfather served as the state’s governor in the 1950s.

The Republican Party executive committee is expected to pick its nominee this weekend.

Janklow will officially resign his seat today after his conviction in December on a second-degree manslaughter charge relating to an August 2003 car accident.

“We have strong candidates in South Dakota and Kentucky 6,” said DCCC Communications Director Kori Bernards. “The Republican bench is not impressive in both of those areas.”

If Democrats are able to capture both seats, expect a major rhetorical campaign from the DCCC casting the elections as an early sign of voter discontent with President Bush and his policies.

Providing a preview of that line of thought, Bernards noted that “if you look at right track/wrong direction polls, there is a sense around the country that voters are not excited about the direction things are going.”

On the flip side, if Republicans hold both seats, it will be spun as an affirmation of the Bush performance and a sign that voters are happy with the agenda Congressional GOPers have pushed in the past year.

A look back shows that special election pickups are an uneven predictor of general election results.

In the seven elections since 1984 in which one party has made gains in special House elections, that same party has picked up seats in the general election three times (1984, 1990 and 1994).

The 1994 special elections in Oklahoma and Kentucky are most often cited as evidence that voter discontent is first manifested in competitive special elections.

In Oklahoma, now-Rep. Frank Lucas (R) won the 6th district that had been held by Democratic Rep. Glenn English for 20 years in a May 10 special election.

That was followed two weeks later by now-Rep. Ron Lewis’ (R) victory in Kentucky’s 3rd district. That seat came open when 20-term Rep. William Natcher (D) died that March.

Lewis handily defeated a former state Senator 55 percent to 45 percent in a district where Democrats held a 2-1 registration advantage.

Republicans crowed that these victories represented disgust with President Bill Clinton’s first two years in office with a Democratic-controlled House and Senate.

The 1994 tidal wave election in which House Republicans picked up 52 seats and took back the majority affirmed that idea.

With the 2001 redistricting process further narrowing the number of competitive House districts and with recent cycles showing only small gains for either party, a repeat of 1994 does not seem in the cards regardless of which party wins in Kentucky and South Dakota.

“Special elections can be predictive, but you don’t know that until the regular November elections,” said Howard Wolfson, executive director of the DCCC in the 2002 cycle. “A lot can change in politics in six months, so the dynamics that influence a special election may no longer exist when the general election comes.”