To the Victor, the Spoils

Special Election Winner Has Edge in November

Posted May 28, 2004 at 4:01pm

Partisans on both sides of today’s House special election in South Dakota are painting the race as a precursor to the contest for a full term in November.

But history shows that the candidate who wins the first race is almost always guaranteed a victory in the following general election.

Since the end of the 1996 cycle, there have been 23 special House elections — and in only one did the candidate who won the special not also win a full term.

The exception to the rule was former Rep. Bill Redmond (R-N.M.) , who won a May 1997 special election to replace then Rep. Bill Richardson (D), but subsequently lost a bid for a full term in 1998 to now-Rep. Tom Udall (D).

Early in the South Dakota special between 2002 nominee Stephanie Herseth (D) and state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R), Republicans were privately predicting that Diedrich had a much better chance of winning the seat in the fall than he does today. They cast the special as a chance to build his name identification in preparation for the fall.

But Diedrich has closed a 30-point deficit with Herseth in the intervening three months and both sides agreed late last week that she was clinging to a single-digit margin.

Democrats’ hopes were buoyed late last week by the public release of more than 200 pardons issued by former Rep. Bill Janklow (R-S.D.) during his 16 years as governor.

The news of the pardons, doled out to his son-in-law and several former associates, among others, dominated the local news in the past few days.

Janklow, who won the House seat in 2002 only to resign from it earlier this year, was recently released from jail. He was convicted of second-degree manslaughter for his role in an August 2003 automobile accident that left a motorcyclist dead.

The special election today coincides with the primaries for the general election as well.

Neither Diedrich nor Herseth has primary opposition, and both have pledged to be their party’s standardbearer in November no matter who wins the special election today.

“Stephanie has said on several occasions that she has every intention of running again in November regardless of the results in June,” said Herseth spokesman Russ Levsen.

“Regardless of the outcome he will be running in November,” confirmed Diedrich spokeswoman Danielle Holland.

Republicans believe that even if Diedrich comes up short today, he will still be in a strong position to make a run at Herseth in the fall.

President Bush will lead the ticket in November and is likely to replicate his 22-point victory margin of 2000.

And the marquee Senate race of the cycle between Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) and former Rep. John Thune (R) should help drive turnout in the state.

In the 2002 race between Thune and Sen. Tim Johnson (D), more than 70 percent of registered voters in the state came to the polls.

When asked about the party’s chances of winning the seat in November, Carl Forti, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, would say only: “We would make a decision on [funding] South Dakota as we would any other race, after Labor Day.”

But if Herseth loses today, she could be at a distinct disadvantage in November — not just because more Republican-leaning voters are likely to vote in the fall, but also because she would carry the stigma of being a two-time loser in House races.

Ironically, it was her surprisingly strong showing against Janklow in 2002 that helped drive her early high poll numbers in this race.

Even if both Herseth and Diedrich do follow through on their promise to run for a full term in November, the winner of today’s election will have a major edge in a rematch — if history is any guide.

Redmond’s victory in 1997 came as the result of a confluence of factors that led a reliably Democratic district to elect a relatively unknown Republican; the Udall victory 19 months later was simply a course correction.

Redmond was given little chance of victory when he entered the race to replace Richardson, who had resigned to become United Nations ambassador in the Clinton administration.

Redmond had received just 31 percent in his 1996 challenge to Richardson in the northern New Mexico district that gave then-President Bill Clinton a 14-point victory margin that year.

But Democrats made a fateful mistake when the state’s central committee plucked then-Corporation Commissioner Eric Serna from a field of six would-be nominees.

Serna’s selection (and the subsequent lack of a primary) provoked an outcry from some Democrats and propelled the Green Party candidacy of health care administrator Carol Miller.

Miller became the alternative candidate for disaffected Democrats, and her strength grew as Redmond accused Serna of ethical wrongdoing on the Corporation Commission. Redmond won the race with 43 percent; Serna took 40 percent and Miller 17 percent.

Learning from their mistakes, Democrats unified behind the state’s attorney general, Udall, in the 1998 general election. Udall won a relatively pedestrian 53 percent to 43 percent victory over Redmond.

Another New Mexico special election provides the closest comparison to the current situation due to the similarities in timing.

In June 1998, now-Rep. Heather Wilson (R) defeated state Sen. Phil Maloof (D) 45 percent to 40 percent for the 1st district seat of the late Rep. Steven Schiff (R). Green Party nominee Bob Anderson took the remaining 15 percent.

Democrats argued that in the general election, Democratic-leaning voters in this swing district would not back Anderson as strongly, choosing instead to support Maloof. But the November 1998 result was a mirror image of the race five months before. Wilson won 48 percent to 42 percent for Maloof and 10 percent for Anderson.

A more recent example shows the difficulty of losing a high-profile special election and bouncing back to be competitive for a full term.

Former Kentucky Attorney General Ben Chandler (D) soundly defeated state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R) on Feb. 17 to claim the 6th district seat vacated by Ernie Fletcher (R) when he was elected governor.

Though Kerr had also filed to run in November, she bowed out of the race shortly after her 12-point loss in the special election.

State Sen. Tom Buford (R) will be the nominee in November, but the race is not seen as a top target for national GOPers despite the district’s Republican tilt.