Debbie Halvorson chats it up at a farmer's market in Bloomington, Illinois. (Flickr/Gemma Billings)
Chicago—Most countries take special elections to fill vacant seats in their national legislative chambers far more seriously than does the United States.
In Britain, in particular, off-the-clock “by-elections” are recognized as testing grounds not just for candidates and parties but for issues. They are thoroughly covered by the media and often treated as mini-referendums that can send powerful signals regarding hot-button policy debates.
American media outlets and pundits are less inclined toward that sort of analysis. But a crucial Democratic primary to fill a vacant Illinois US House seat is shaping up as test that could well meet the “by-election” standard when it comes to providing an indication of popular sentiment. This race will test the question of whether ties to the National Rifle Association have become politically toxic among Democrats. Of course, it is not the only test, or even the perfect one, as this is an predominantly urban and close-in surburban district. Many of the Democrats who have NRA ties—or who try to walk a middle line with regard to its demands—represent districts and states that are more rural and have strong hunting traditions. But the dynamics in this race, and the moment at which it is playing out, have the potential to send a message of consequence.
Timing is everything when it comes to the question of whether a special election serves as a mini-referendum, as Republicans learned when they lost a historically Republican seat in upstate New York during the 2011 debate over Congressional Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s schemes to assault Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
And the timing of this primary contest makes it a big deal, as there are still many Democrats who, even after the horrific Newtown slayings of December and the January killing of Chicago high school student Hadiya Pendleton just days after she performed at President Obama’s second inaugural, seek to play the margins on the gun debate.
Illinois’s 2nd congressional district, which takes in Chicago’s southeast side and the city’s south suburbs, will fill the seat vacated by the resignation of Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic. A majority of the voters are African-American, as are most of the seventeen candidates competing in the Democratic primary to replace Jackson. But one of the leading contenders, former Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, is a white Democrat who represented a nearby district before losing to a Tea Party Republican in 2012.