Newspaper article Roll Call

Why Special Elections Really Matter

Newspaper article Roll Call

Why Special Elections Really Matter

Article excerpt

Special elections matter, but not for the reasons you might think.

It's an annual sport in politics: arguing whether special elections serve as bellwethers. But while special elections often poorly portend results around the country, they can produce potential leaders. They're also excellent predictors of voter behavior inside that particular district.

Even when special elections aren't competitive, they are worth paying attention to because the winner could be around for awhile and climb the leadership ladder. The upcoming special election in Mississippi's 1st District after the death of GOP Rep. Alan Nunnelee might be the latest example of a special race that is not at risk of changing partisan hands.

Fifty-eight current members of the House (13 percent) were first elected to the chamber by special election, according to CQ Roll Call research.

Republican Don Young of Alaska won a March 1973 special election to replace Democratic Rep. Nick Begich (father of former Sen. Mark Begich) who disappeared in a plane crash before the 1972 elections. Young was just re-elected to his 21st full term.

Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D- N.J., won special elections in 1988. A handful of more current House members won special election races at least 20 years ago including California Democrat Sam Farr (1993), Texas Republican Sam Johnson (1991), Oklahoma Republican Frank D. Lucas (1994), New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler (1992), Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (1989), New York Democrat Jose E. Serrano (1990), and Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson (1993).

Other members have gone from being special election victors in partisan districts to the highest levels of House leadership. Maryland Democrat Steny H. Hoyer won a special election in 1981 and went on to become House majority leader and now minority whip. California Democrat Nancy Pelosi won a special election to 1987 and climbed to become the first female speaker. …

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