Champions of losing parties and their pundit pals are always quick to claim that special elections for open US House seats don’t matter. That’s what Republican operatives and conservative talk radio hosts are doing today, as they try to explain away Tuesday’s pick-up by the Democrat Stephanie Herseth of a previously Republican-held seat in South Dakota. Republicans are claiming that their candidate got a late start, that Herseth had better name recognition and, above all, that this was a local race in which no one could possibly find signals regarding national trends.
They are, of course, wrong.
Special elections results, especially when they follow upon one another and begin to form patterns, mean a great deal in American politics. In the last two election cycles where Democratic challengers defeated Republican Presidents, those wins were preceded by patterns of Democratic wins in special elections for House seats vacated by Republicans. Before the 1976 presidential election, Democrats swept a series of special elections in traditionally Republican districts–even winning the Michigan House seat vacated by Gerald Ford when he accepted the vice presidency in Richard Nixon’s collapsing Administration. In 1976, after assuming the presidency, Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Similarly, before the 1992 election, President George Herbert Walker Bush was embarrassed when his Republican party lost special elections for seats it had held. Of particular significance was the June 4, 1991, election of Democrat John Olver to the western Massachusetts seat vacated by Republican Representative Silvio O. Conte, a close Bush ally.
Special elections for House seats have always been a big deal for savvy strategists in both parties, precisely because they know that such elections can tell us a great deal about the political moment. Early in 1985, Republicans were riding high after Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election win in 1984. A Democratic House seat in Texas came open and the GOP made a major push to win it, seeking to signal that Democrats could no longer win competitive seats in the south. The party’s top operative, Lee Atwater, was dispatched to run the race of the Republican candidate, and it was no secret that the Reagan White House hoped a win in the Texas special election would cause Southern Democratic House members to switch parties in droves. Unfortunately for Atwater, Democrat Jim Chapman won the seat. Atwater admitted that he had “the dry heaves for three days” after the loss.
Will Republicans be similarly upset following the South Dakota vote?
Not exactly. Republicans are no longer a party on the rise, looking for breakthrough wins. They have power, and it is easier to defend the high ground than to take it.
But there is no question that the South Dakota result represents bad news for the GOP. Coming not long before fall elections, when Republicans must defend the White House and narrow margins of control in the House and Senate, a pair of special-election wins for Democrats running in traditionally Republican House districts will set off alarm bells within the headquarters of the Republican National Committee.