ANALYSIS — One down, four to go in the first batch of House special elections of 2021. And the biggest race to watch is coming up in May.
Republican Julia Letlow won the race for Louisiana’s 5th District outright Saturday by receiving a majority of the vote. She had the backing of Donald Trump but didn’t need it. It was an endorsement meant to pad the win-loss record of the former president in a race where Letlow was the clear front-runner from the outset in a northeast Louisiana district that was not at risk of going Democratic.
A bigger question is whether Trump gets involved in Texas’ 6th District, where he could boost a GOP candidate in a more crowded field of contenders but also be a potential liability in a suburban seat he only narrowly carried in 2020.
Of course, caution is always necessary when extrapolating special election results on to the next regular elections. Four years ago, Republicans thumped their chests after holding Georgia’s 6th District in the most expensive House election in history. A year and a half later, they lost a net of 40 seats (including Georgia’s 6th) and the House majority.
At the same time, special elections can provide useful windows into the future. While it was technically a redo election and not a special election, and with the benefit of knowing the 2020 election results, the September 2019 special election in North Carolina’s 9th District contained some important lessons. Democrats were able to boost their margins in the suburbs, Republicans gained in rural areas and the GOP held a Trump 2016 district.
Here’s a rundown of the upcoming special election races, in chronological order.
Texas’ 6th District
Considering Trump’s 51 percent to 48 percent victory over Joe Biden in the suburban Dallas-Fort Worth-area seat, this is the special election most likely to evolve into a competitive race between Democrats and Republicans.
The first step is the May 1 jungle primary in which 23 candidates will compete on the same ballot. The top two contenders, regardless of party, will move on to a runoff if no one receives a majority of the vote. A runoff seems inevitable considering the large field, which includes multiple credible candidates on each side.
Susan Wright, the widow of Republican Ron Wright, whose death from COVID-19 complications last month opened up the seat, is the initial leader on the GOP side, according to two recent polls published by Inside Elections. But there are a handful of credible Republican contenders, a few serious Democratic candidates and an even larger number of undecided voters.
If a Republican and a Democrat end up as the top two vote-getters, the two parties will have to decide how much to invest in the runoff, which would have to be scheduled by the governor. The earliest possible date is May 24.
With a tight House majority in which every seat and every vote matters, Democrats can’t afford to pass on too many takeover opportunities. At the same time, there’s a decent chance the seat could be a “rental,” which means Republicans could redraw the 6th District during the regular redistricting process, making it more Republican and difficult for a new Democratic member of Congress to win next year.
In the end, it’s hard to believe Republicans and Democrats won’t tangle for this seat. And it could be an early test of what enthusiasm and turnout looks like, for both parties, when Trump is not on the ballot. Inside Elections rates the race Leans Republican.
Louisiana’s 2nd District
The April 24 runoff is set after Saturday’s jungle primary. State Sens. Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson are facing off in the race to replace their fellow Democrat Cedric L. Richmond, who left Congress to be a senior adviser in the Biden administration.
It’s actually not the first time these two have faced each other in a congressional race. Fifteen years ago, both of them challenged Democratic Rep. William J. Jefferson after the FBI found $90,000 cash in his freezer. Jefferson still finished first in the 2006 race, followed by Karen Carter in second place and Troy Carter in fifth. Then Jefferson defeated Karen Carter 57 percent to 43 percent in the runoff.
On Saturday, it was Troy Carter who finished first with 36 percent, followed by Carter Peterson with 23 percent. Activist Gary Chambers, also a Democrat, finished a close third with 21 percent. Carter has the advantage, but Carter Peterson will try to consolidate progressive support.
The bottom line is that this seat will remain in Democratic hands with no Republican in the runoff. Rating: Solid Democratic.
New Mexico’s 1st District
Republicans want this Albuquerque-area seat to be in play, but their optimism might be about a decade or so behind. The 1st District was represented continuously by Republicans from its creation in 1968 until 2008, when Rep. Heather A. Wilson left to run for the Senate. It has been held by Democrats ever since, first by Martin Heinrich, now the state’s senior senator; then by Michelle Lujan Grisham, now the state’s governor; and from 2019 until last week, by Deb Haaland, who is now Biden’s secretary of the Interior.
In an era when the presidential results are a good barometer of congressional races, Biden’s 60 percent to 37 percent margin over Trump in this district looks initially daunting for the GOP.
The parties will choose their own nominees without primaries, and the hopefuls will face off on June 1. It’s possible that this develops into a serious contest, but that would mean Democratic turnout has fallen off a cliff or there’s been a complete collapse. For now, the race is rated Solid Democratic.
I guess the GOP can hope for a replay of one of the most famous debate gaffes in modern congressional history. Even that probably wouldn’t be enough.
Ohio’s 11th District
Constituents of this Cleveland/Akron-area seat will be without a representative for most of the year after Democrat Marcia L. Fudge was confirmed as Biden’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
The primaries aren’t scheduled until Aug. 3, followed by a Nov. 2 general election. Considering Biden’s 80 percent to 19 percent margin over Trump in the district last fall, the most important race is the Democratic primary.
Former state Sen. Nina Turner, who has been a vocal advocate for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is the initial front-runner. But Cuyahoga County Council Member Shontel Brown is a credible contender, among other Democratic candidates, and there’s a long way to go in the race.
The race is rated Solid Democratic and shouldn’t affect the fight for the majority. But the lack of a Democratic vote in the House between now and November could be consequential.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.