A governor through the power of appointment can actually make you a U.S. senator. If you are a lieutenant governor and the governor resigns or expires, you automatically become governor. But there is only one way anyone can ever become a member of the House of Representatives — you have to be elected by the voters of your state.
That could be one reason why special House elections, to fill a vacant seat, get so much attention — because actual voters have actually voted.
Immediately after any special House election in which party control of the seat changes, the partisan post-mortems are wonderfully predictable. The Losing Side is quick to explain that its defeat was the direct result of uniquely local issues and — as is often whispered, not for attribution — the personality and intellectual shortcomings of its nominee.
Not so, counters the Winning Side. True, its candidate was superior in style and substance, but this race was fought and decided on national issues. The results are either a ringing endorsement or a damning indictment of the incumbent president and his policies.
Occasionally, special elections do indicate a national wave. Let me tell you about a personal experience. In March 1974, I was working in a special House campaign in Cincinnati for Tom Luken, a Democrat, in a district that had not elected a Democrat since 1936. This was the year when the Watergate cover-up (as well as President Richard Nixon’s own involvement in it) was exposed.
Two weeks earlier, Democrat Richard Vander Veen won the seat vacated by Republican Gerald Ford, who had become Nixon’s vice president after the forced departure of Spiro Agnew from that office. The Michigan district had not elected a Democrat in more than 60 years, but Vander Veen called for Nixon’s resignation, which would have meant Ford’s elevation.
Four days before the Cincinnati special, Nixon’s White House chief of staff and attorney general were indicted in the Watergate cover-up, and Luken was on TV arguing that “my opponent has the all-out support of the Nixon administration and all that administration has come to stand for — almost criminal inflation and actual criminal indictments.”
Luken won, and those two back-to-back upset wins signaled that Nixon had politically become dead man walking and that 1974 would be a huge Democratic year.
Tuesday’s special House victory of Democrat Kathy Hochul in upstate New York’s 26th District, which has been uninterruptedly electing Republicans for more than 40 years, has received national coverage. Democrat Hochul, Republicans conceded, was a more appealing candidate than Republican Jane Corwin, who outspent the winner by several hundred thousand dollars.
But there was one dominant issue in this special election. It wasn’t President Barack Obama, whose endorsement Hochul did not seek. It was instead the Republican House-passed budget plan of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which would eventually replace the current Medicare program with a voucher system.
House Republicans won a landslide last November and had spoken often about cutting federal spending and government programs, but they had never mentioned this major change in Medicare. As long as the rhetoric was about waste, fraud, abuse and cost overruns, the Republicans were safe.
But as Sir Anthony Eden observed, “Everyone is always in favor of general (economizing) and particular expenditures.” Republicans had no political strategy for selling their Medicare-voucher idea and sizable popular majorities strongly oppose the Ryan plan. But it has become an article of party faith, with presidential candidates afraid to separate themselves from the proposal.
Formerly beleaguered Democrats are suddenly on the political offensive, and Republicans are in a defensive crouch. New York 26 could be a special election that really does matter.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.