04/21/2017

How To Read This Year’s Special Elections

Michael Barone, Wall Street Journal

Special elections are, well, special. Unlike Senate vacancies, which can be filled by appointment, empty House seats require elections under terms and conditions set by state governments. These contests can provide a barometer of public opinion between regular House elections, and sometimes they have major political reverberations.

The most consequential special election in American history was probably the November 1931 contest to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Texas Republican Henry M. Wurzbach. The victory of Richard M. Kleberg in Texas’ 14th Congressional District turned control of the House to the Democrats. More significant was the staffer that Kleberg hired, a lanky 23-year-old Hill Country schoolteacher named Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In second place was the February 1974 election in Michigan’s Fifth District, held to replace Gerald Ford after his elevation to the vice presidency. The surprise winner was Grand Rapids lawyer Richard Vander Veen. This Democratic victory, in a district that had not elected a Democrat since 1910, signaled that Richard Nixon’s political days were done. Impeachment hearings followed and Nixon resigned six months later.

Special elections in the U.S. are derived from “by-elections” to fill vacancies in the British House of Commons. These go back a long time. My favorite was the January 1667 by-election in the county of Devon, in which the 13-year-old Christopher Monck ran unopposed. It helped that he was the son of the Duke of Albemarle, the general who had restored King Charles II to the throne seven years before. Monck spoke and voted in the House, but his political career was curtailed when his father died and he was elevated to the House of Lords, where he couldn’t vote until he turned 21.

British by-elections continue to be important. The prime minister, under the unwritten British constitution, has powers which in American eyes look dictatorial: She has a seemingly automatic majority for anything. If the opposition captures governing party seats in by-elections, it can restrain No. 10 Downing Street—or even incite panic.

Government takeovers of opposition seats are very rare. This February the Conservatives won a seat in Copeland held by Labour since 1935. The success there might have played a role in Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call a general election for June 8. The results will show whether Copeland was a good leading indicator.

American special elections aren’t always predictive. The race to fill Ford’s seat was a harbinger, as were another four that year. Two decades later, in May 1994, Republican victories in Kentucky and Ohio preceded the wave election that brought Republicans their first House majority in 40 years. But there weren’t similar victories that pointed to the Democrats’ big takeover in 2006.

This season’s special elections will primarily replace Trump administration appointees, which means they’re in districts that have been electing Republicans. In the past two decades of partisan polarization and stability, the benchmark to judge the results was obvious: The district’s vote in the last presidential election. But it’s a bit more complicated now.

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