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Mark Shields: Can Special House Elections Predict Our Political Future?

Is there an emerging national pattern to be found in special elections for the House of Representatives, such as the one that just happened in Georgia to fill the reliably Republican House seat once held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, most recently held by current Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and for which, in the first round of voting, a rookie 30-year-old Democrat finished first, 28 points ahead of the Republican former Georgia secretary of state?

When considering whether special House election results can predict what’s going to happen in national general elections, I think of one of my favorite American humorists, the late Pat Paulsen, who ran several mock-serious campaigns for president featuring the slogan, “If elected, I will win.”

Paulsen said he was often asked why he spent long days and nights campaigning in hard-to-get-to places.

“Is it because of my dedication to my fellow citizens or concern for the nation’s future,” he asked, “or is it for the money, the limousines and the pretty girls?”

The answers, Paulsen revealed, were, “No, no, yes, yes, yes.”

In March 1974, I was working for Democrat Tom Luken, a former Cincinnati mayor who was running against another former mayor, Republican Bill Gradison, in a special election for an Ohio district that, in the previous 62 years, Republicans had lost only twice.

Four days before the voting, we got word that a Washington grand jury was about to indict President Richard Nixon’s two top White House aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, along with former Attorney General John Mitchell, on perjury, obstruction of justice and conspiracy.

Luken was ready, when the news broke, with a TV spot, speaking directly to camera: “My opponent has the all-out backing of the Nixon administration and everything it has come to mean — almost criminal inflation and actual criminal indictments.”

Should it have been a surprise when, two days later, Democrats won an upset victory? Not really, because just two weeks earlier, in the Grand Rapids, Mich., district — which had not elected a Democrat since 1910 and had been represented since 1948 by Gerald Ford, who had, after the forced resignation of Spiro Agnew, become vice president — Democrat Richard Vander Veen had won by framing the vote as a referendum on “the moral bankruptcy of Richard Nixon.”

Additional Democratic special election victories in 1974 — in what had been solid GOP districts in Johnstown, Pa., and Saginaw, Mich. — delivered an unmistakable message to Republicans, including then-Republican National Committee chairman George H.W. Bush, that Nixon had become the political equivalent of Typhoid Mary and any close identification with him constituted a serious threat to Republicans’ political survival.

By November, Nixon had resigned, and Grand Rapids’ own Jerry Ford was in the Oval Office. Republicans had lost 48 House seats.

Fast-forward to the first term of President Barack Obama, when, in closely watched 2009 and 2010 special elections, Democrats looked to have dodged a bullet by hanging on to two at-risk House seats in New York and Pennsylvania and capturing a GOP seat in the northern New York district along the Canadian border.

But those special elections were definitely not predictive. In the November 2010 general election, Republicans won 63 seats — and control of the House — from the Democrats.

What a series of upset wins — or losses — in special House elections almost always guarantees is that the party springing those upsets finds it a lot easier, because of the sense that it has favorable winds behind its back, to recruit better, more electable candidates to run in the next scheduled November election.

Conversely, the prospect of running in an election that will become a referendum on the unpopular president of your party can convince congressional incumbents of the appeal of “spending more time with family” instead of risking defeat.

Special elections can definitely 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, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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