Special Elections in Redistricting Cycles: To Play or Not to Play?

by Nathan L. Gonzales May 21, 2021 · 9:00 AM EDT

Democrats aren’t lamenting getting locked out of the special election runoff earlier this month in a Texas district they targeted previously.

But did the party miss an opportunity to bounce back from a surprising 11-seat loss in the 2020 elections? Looking back a decade ago at the special elections ahead of the last redistricting cycle, the answer is: maybe. 

There are risks and rewards to competing in special elections, particularly in a redistricting cycle when a seat will be redrawn before the next general election, according to more than a half-dozen strategists who were staffing the parties' campaign committees in 2011 and 2012.

“If you have a chance to win a special, you win a special,” said GOP media consultant Guy Harrison, who was executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 2012 cycle.

This year, national Democrats effectively passed on participating in the special election in Texas’ 6th District, even though Joe Biden lost the seat to President Donald Trump by just 3 points six months ago. One of the reasons Democrats privately cited for punting was the likelihood that Republicans will redraw the district to be significantly more Republican before the 2022 regular election. Thus it wasn’t worth a significant investment on a special election when the seat would be prohibitively difficult to hold.

Looking Back
“There is value to winning, even if you can’t hold it in the long term,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, looking back at the 2012 cycle when he was press secretary at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He cited recruitment and fundraising as two key benefits from special election victories when Democrats were recovering from losing the majority in 2010.

Ferguson and other Democrats argue that the 2020 presidential results overstated Democratic performance in Texas’ 6th and the crowded field and jungle primary made involvement complicated. The leading Democrat finished in third place, less than 350 votes from securing a runoff position. Now, without a candidate, Democrats obviously have no chance to win the July 27 runoff.

“There are lots of factors that go into a decision to play in any special,” said GOP strategist and 2012 NRCC political director Mike Shields, who cited cost, candidate quality, likelihood of winning, benefits of losing a close race, and forcing the other party to spend money. “Overall though, you lean towards trying to win now if you can, and let the other things fall where they may.”

“There are so many factors in redistricting, it’s hard to predict the outcome,” Democratic strategist and 2012 DCCC political director Kelly Ward Burton said about trying to game out what a future seat might look like when evaluating special election situations. “A win is a win, which is especially helpful when the House margin is so tight.” Accounting for other vacancies, Speaker Nancy Pelosi currently has just three votes to spare on key House votes.

New York Was a Special Place
Looking back at the 2012 cycle, both parties invested in special elections with at least some knowledge that the districts might be redrawn against them prior to the next regular election.

Democrats won the first special election that cycle with Kathy Hochul’s May 2011 victory in the district vacated by GOP Rep. Chris Lee, the shirtless poser. The seat changed significantly in the subsequent redistricting process. Hochul ran for reelection in the renumbered 27th District, where nearly half of the voters were new to her, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections, and she lost by 2 points to Republican Chris Collins.

But in the wake of Republicans’ 63-seat gain in the 2010 elections, that initial special election win was a much-needed morale boost for Democrats.

“Hochul and others helped us recover our swagger a bit,” said Democratic consultant Travis Lowe, who had multiple roles at the DCCC in the 2010 and 2012 cycles. Democrats were aided in the race by a self-funding candidate running on the tea party line, which allowed Hochul to win with 47 percent.

Republicans bounced back a few months later, in September, with a special election upset of their own, when Bob Turner defeated Democrat David Weprin in New York’s 9th District, vacated by Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner. 

The Empire State subsequently lost two seats due to apportionment, and Turner’s district was parceled out to seven newly drawn seats and the largest chunk of his constituents were placed in what is now Democrat Grace Meng’s 6th District. Faced with grim reelection prospects, Turner chose to run for Senate instead. 

That same day in 2011 that Turner scored his upset, former GOP state Sen. Mark Amodei won a special election in Nevada’s 2nd District, 58 percent to 36 percent over Democratic state Treasurer Kate Marshall. The district didn’t change during the subsequent redistricting, and Amodei has never received less than 56 percent in his reelection races over the last decade. 

In 2012, two more special elections came and went without a political earthquake. That January, Democrat Suzanne Bonamici defeated Republican Rob Cornilles by 14 points in Oregon’s 1st District, left vacant by Democrat David Wu. The 1st barely changed in the subsequent redistricting and Bonamici has been reelected easily ever since.

And in June, Democrat Ron Barber defeated Republican Jesse Kelly by 7 points in Arizona’s 8th District to replace former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who had been shot at a constituent event in a grocery store parking lot the previous year. The geography didn’t change much in redistricting, but it was renumbered the 2nd District. Barber held the seat that fall, before losing it two years later to Republican Martha McSally. 

In November 2012, Democrats gained eight seats as President Barack Obama was reelected to a second term, proving once again that special elections are imperfect predictors of future performance. 

Not Just Redistricting Cycles
The special election dynamic isn’t limited to redistricting cycles. Republicans lost 14 of 15 special elections (albeit not all of them in competitive districts) from 2008 to early 2010, including 11 in a row, before Charles K. Djou won in Hawaii’s 1st District.

“Whether you lose it later in an election or in redistricting, don’t underestimate how important that momentum, the headlines and the donor enthusiasm is after a special,” said Republican strategist Joanna Burgos, who worked in multiple roles at the NRCC in the 2010 and 2012 cycles. Before Hawaii, the pressure was mounting on Republicans to demonstrate they could win a key special election.

Even though it was a Democratic district, Republicans took advantage of the process in Hawaii, with 14 candidates running together on one ballot, including two credible Democrats, allowing Djou to prevail with less than 40 percent. 

The Next Big Thing?
This year, Republicans face long odds in the upcoming special election in New Mexico’s 1st District. 

While some buzz has developed about the contest considering Trump’s overperformance with minority voters in 2020 and the crime rate in Albuquerque, the NRCC has not made a significant investment in the race, up to this point, in a seat Biden won by more than 20 points in November.

And instead of a crowded field of candidates and jungle primary, the June 1 race is straightforward. Democratic state Rep. Melanie Stansbury is facing off against Republican state Sen. Mark Moores, making it difficult for the GOP to benefit from unique circumstances. 

“For every one of the upsets that fuel excitement, there are countless others that don’t come to fruition,” Ferguson cautioned.