President Trump’s promotion of four House Republicans to his cabinet has given Democrats optimism that they can recover ground in a chamber where they hold just 193 of 435 House seats. The minority party sorely hopes that capturing one, two, or perhaps three of the open seats in the upcoming special elections will foreshadow bigger gains – and ultimately a flip of the chamber in their direction in the November 2018 midterms.
Indeed, most recent history portends special election wins in competitive districts for the party out of power translating into devastating losses for the party in power in the upcoming general elections. There is an exception or two – most recently the 2009/10 cycle but, generally, the trend is a solid precursor. Additionally, there have been instances in which the election in districts that lopsidedly favor one party turns out to be so breathtakingly close that a loss is actually viewed as a win. I’ll save the dynamics of the four GOP-held seats up for grabs for a future column (a fifth seat in California is also open but that was held by a Democrat, Xavier Becerra in a solidly Democratic district) but for now, let’s explore the dynamics of special elections prior to wave years.
In 1974, Richard Nixon was in deep decline and that winter, Republicans lost a trio of House seats, at least two of which were unexpected. The headline shocker was another Michigan seat and that had been held by an awfully big fish. Gerald Ford had recently resigned to become vice-president and his seat was so Republican that in 15 elections, he never had to sweat. In fact, not since 1910 had the seat preferred a Democrat. So Washington was shell-shocked when Democrat Dick Vander-Veen won the right to complete the rest of Ford’s term. Another seat in the Wolverine State was surrendered by Republicans the following month as Bob Traxler won the seat that James Harvey had vacated to become a judge. In the midst of those two races was Jack Murtha’s snatching of a seat held by the late John Saylor. That November, Republicans were decimated, losing 43 seats that spared no region of the country. Gone with it was the ability to sustain President Ford’s vetoes.
Pennsylvania Congressman Jack Murtha’s special election win in the winter of 1974 was evidence of an anti-Republican wave (Photo via newsbusters.com)
The 1994 special election season saw House Democrats lose two seats they had held since the War of the Roses: Oklahoma’s Sixth Congressional District, which had been vacated by Glen English and Kentucky’s Second, represented by the late Appropriations Chair Bill Natcher. While the former had top notch candidates on both sides, the latter featured a well-known elected official, ex-Owensboro Mayor Joe Prather versus a Christian bookstore owner, Ron Lewis. The novice won by a ten point margin. Incidentally, a Senate election earlier that cycle in Texas was also a predictor of the coming wave as State Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison walloped appointed enator Bob Krueger for the right to finish Lloyd Bentsen’s term 67-33%. Bill Clinton hadn’t carried Texas and Krueger had never been favored to hold the seat but Hutchison’s margin was ominous of the looming political storm. Sure enough, in November of 1994, Democrats surrendered 52 House seats and their 40 year majority.
In some cases, special elections can be a harbinger of looming tsunamis – even races that don’t go a party’s way. In 1981, an Ohio State Senator named Mike Oxley vaulted toward the general election to succeed the late Tennyson Guyer in a district which had lopsided majorities. Instead, it was the infancy of the Reagan presidency and Oxley won by a mere 378 votes. The next year, Democrats picked up 26 House seats.
Ohio was pivotal again to the “a loss is a win” adage. Rob Portman had resigned to become Director of the Office of Management and Budget and, leaving behind a district that gave George W. Bush his second highest percentage in the state, was expected to easily hand it over to whichever Republican emerged from the primary. That turned out to be a State Senator named Jean Schmidt. But the deaths in Iraq were mounting and Schmidt’s opponent was an Iraqi war vet who galvanized the Democratic base. It nearly worked. Hackett won 48% and got the attention of suddenly nervous Republicans. And for good reason. The following year, Republicans lost 30 House seats and the majority.
To be sure, specials aren’t always on the money. Through most of 2009, the healthcare plan that had yet to be passed was steadily seeing a decline in support. That led the GOP to believe the sky would be the limit politically. It was, but it took a strange detour. Democrats actually picked up a seat in New York State that had actually been represented by a Whig more recently than a Democrat (incumbent John McHugh had been tapped to serve as secretary of the Army). Six months later, they got another far from certain reprieve as Democrats held onto the seat of recently deceased baron Murtha. That fueled optimism that they’d be able to stave off enough losses to keep their majority that November. That proved to be wishful thinking as Republicans seized 63 seats.
Of the four GOP seats that will be seeing special elections this cycle, Democrats are pinning their hopes on a Georgia district left behind by Tom Price (most of which was formerly held by Newt Gingrich). Montana’s At-Large seat, which Ryan Zinke gave up to become Interior Secretary, is also viewed as competitive though the extent is unclear at this point. Some in the party haven’t entirely written off South Carolina-5 that Mick Mulvaney represented but that might be a bridge too far. Kansas-4 which was the base of Mike Pompeo is likely out of reach for Democrats.
Either way, if Democrats manage to win one seat or even come within 4-6 points of victory in at least two, history indicates that by November of 2018, the fingernails of Republican incumbents will be mighty sore from the constant biting.