Ready or Not, the Next Elections Are Weeks Away
By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst
After the most divisive election in recent history, the Capitol invasion on Jan. 6 and a second impeachment trial, there’s a temptation to crawl into a cave and avoid politics altogether. That’s not a great idea, however, considering a batch of House special elections are just around the corner.
The consequence of President Joe Biden filling out his administration with a handful of House members is a slate of vacant seats that require special elections to choose new lawmakers.
It’s not great timing considering some political action committees have chosen to suspend or scale back their political activity for at least the next few months. These special elections, however, could be a way to look forward to new opportunities rather than focus on relitigating the past.
Special elections are also important because they ultimately end with a new member of Congress, even when it’s en vogue to dismiss the results. According to conventional wisdom, “special elections are special.” In other words, their circumstances are unique and thus it’s irresponsible to extrapolate the results onto future elections.
It’s healthy to be skeptical that a single race in one part of the country tells us all that much about dozens of important races nationwide more than a year away. But with the advantage of hindsight, we know now that a September 2019 election gave us clues to what would happen in November 2020.
Because of alleged voter fraud by a Republican consultant in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District in 2018, a member was never seated and there was a redo election. The Democratic nominee overperformed in the Charlotte suburbs compared with his own 2018 performance, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the fundamental GOP lean of the district as Republican nominee Dan Bishop overperformed in rural areas, including among minority voters. This could have been a clue pointing to the GOP gains in the House in November 2020, when a similar dynamic to the redo election played out in key areas around the country.
Since most of the upcoming special elections are taking place in districts that are much more partisan than that seat in North Carolina, there might not be a lot of great peeks into the 2022 midterm environment. But at a minimum, a new set of lawmakers will be elected and heading to the Hill in a Congress so evenly divided that every vote matters.
Here’s what’s on the docket:
Louisiana’s 2nd District. Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond resigned to become a senior White House adviser, leaving behind a district anchored by New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Under state law, all candidates, regardless of party, will appear on the same March 20 ballot. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the top two vote-getters progress to an April 24 runoff.
Democratic state Sens. Karen Carter Peterson and Troy Carter are the top contenders. Both candidates ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006 against scandal-tainted Rep. Bill Jefferson, after the FBI found $90,000 cash in his freezer.
Donald Trump received just 22% of the vote in the district in 2016, so the seat is expected to remain in Democratic hands; it’s just not clear who the new member will be. You can read more about the race in a past issue of Inside Elections.
Louisiana’s 5th District. This mostly rural northeastern Louisiana seat is vacant after Rep.-elect Luke Letlow passed away with COVID-19 before he was sworn in. The race is being held under the same timeline as the 2nd District, with an initial March 20 election and potential April 24 runoff.
Trump received 64% in the district in 2020, so Republicans should have no problem holding the seat. Julia Letlow, Luke’s widow, is regarded as the clear front-runner in the race. She’s an ombudsperson and special projects coordinator for the University of Louisiana at Monroe and vice president for academic affairs. While Luke (who was chief of staff to the district’s most recent member, Republican Ralph Abraham) finished first in the November race with 33% and won the general election with 62% against another Republican, he wasn’t yet an incumbent. So Julia Letlow’s name I.D. isn’t necessarily high, unless it stems from news coverage of the tragic circumstances of her candidacy.
Ohio’s 11th District. Biden nominated Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge to be his secretary of housing and urban development. The precise timing of the vacancy of this district, which includes the eastern part of Cleveland and extends south to Akron, depends on Fudge’s confirmation. But local sources are eyeing May 4 for the primary.
Considering Trump failed to reach 20% of the vote against Biden in the district, the premier fight is on the Democratic side. Former state Sen. Nina Turner, who has been an outspoken surrogate for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaigns, is the initial front-runner. But Cuyahoga County Council member Shontel Brown is a serious contender, and other candidates are running as well.
The dynamics are somewhat complicated because Ohio is likely to lose a congressional seat during reapportionment, all of the district lines will be changed, and this seat might be redrawn without the Akron piece. But for now, the most important thing from a handicapping perspective is that the seat is likely to remain in the Democratic column. You can read more in Inside Elections.
New Mexico’s 1st District. Biden nominated Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland to be secretary of the interior, which would make her the first Native American Cabinet secretary. Her confirmation would also open up this Albuquerque-based district.
The 1st was once held by Republican Rep. Heather Wilson, but has been firmly in Democratic hands since she left to run statewide more than a decade ago. And considering Biden won it 60%-37% over Trump in November, the fight for the Democratic nomination is crucial.
The circumstances surrounding the race are a little different and still evolving. The date for Haaland’s confirmation is still unknown. The New Mexico secretary of state will schedule the special election for between 11 and 13 weeks from the date of the vacancy. But the parties do not choose their nominees via primary election, but rather by a vote of State Central Committee members who reside in the district itself. That means the Democratic nominee will be selected by 176 party activists and roughly 25 local elected officials, who will cast their votes virtually over the course of a week.
The top contenders include University of New Mexico law school professor Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, state Rep. Melanie Stansbury, state Rep. Georgene Louis, high-profile local trial attorney Randi McGinn, and Victor Reyes, legislative director to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
A closer-than-expected race in a district like this could signal Democratic troubles keeping their base motivated in the post-Trump era. Learn more about the race and the candidates from Jacob Rubashkin at Inside Elections.
Texas’ 6th District. Sadly, there will also be a special election to replace GOP Rep. Ron Wright, a cancer survivor who recently died with COVID-19. In 2020, Wright ran unopposed in the Republican primary and defeated Democrat Stephen Daniel 53%-44%. Wright, a former chief of staff to his predecessor, GOP Rep. Joe Barton, was in his second term in the House.
The 6th encompasses Arlington and other parts of Tarrant County and stretches into the rural areas south of North Texas, including Waxahachie and Corsicana. According to The Texas Tribune, under state law, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott can schedule the election for the next uniform election date — May 1 — or earlier under certain circumstances.
When the date is set, the election will be a jungle primary (similar to Louisiana), where all candidates run together on the same ballot in the initial race. Considering Trump won the district narrowly over Biden, 51%-48%, according to Daily Kos Elections, this might end up being the most competitive special election of all of these early contests.
Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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