A Special Election Trio

Introduction & Some History

During any primary season, most attention is naturally devoted to the nominating contests that directly affect the November generals. But special elections, owing to their rarity and oddness, tend steal the spotlight when they occur a few times each year. Part of the attention stems from competitiveness, since specials usually produce marquee races. Even if a district does not have a close general election, one will usually find a knife-fight primary on at least one side.

These unique races can also provide insight into national political environments, especially in midterm years. Take the 2017-2018 cycle as an example. During that period, Republicans held onto countless technically-safe districts by narrow margins. Democrats may not have won in MT-AL, KS-04, SC-05, and AZ-08 but strong finishes by underdog candidates hinted at larger electoral realities that would come to the fore when the GOP lost the House that November as Democrats swept bluer seats like IL-06 and NJ-07 while holding their own in red bastions like IA-04, PA-16, and NY-27.

Another district from that cycle, GA-06, hosted the most expensive House election in American history. Based in the Atlanta area, the suburban seat had shifted over 20 points toward the Democrats between the 2012 and 2016 Presidential races. Though the trends were clearly there, long-time Congressman Tom Price had never faced a serious challenge.

Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel narrowly defeated film-maker Jon Ossoff in the special election runoff. Despite falling short Ossoff had posted an incredible performance in one of the Peach State’s most traditionally-Republican regions. Handel would go on to lose the seat in November 2018 to Lucy McBath. Ossoff, serendipitously, found his way into the Senate at an exceedingly-young age without any prior electoral success to speak of.

@JMilesColeman

Democrats performed well in two other Trump seats in the lead-up to the November midterms: PA-18 and OH-12.

In the former, blue dog Democrat Conor Lamb narrowly defeated Rick Saccone in a southwestern Pennsylvania district that was the Republican’s to lose. His initial victory stemmed from Westmoreland County, though he also had an impressive performance in the coalfield counties. Mid-decade redistricting delivered him a safer seat based around the Pittsburgh suburbs that he has since won twice. Lamb is now running for Senate, but seems like a primary underdog to Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman.

In the latter, Democrat Danny O’Connor lost to Troy Balderson by the skin of his teeth. He mobilized the Franklin County (Columbus) portions of the seat, but fell short in the Republican-leaning suburbs of Delaware County and the more far-flung rural portions of the seat. He was defeated by a slightly-larger margin in the regular election that November.

@jfreeds09

But special elections are not always the best indicator of midterm momentum. Unusual election dates tend to create weird turnout dynamics and *sometimes* temporary depolarization too. The 2010 cycle, in which the GOP netted 63 seats, was the perfect instance of this. In the lead-up to November, for example, Democrat Mark Critz managed to hold the late John Murtha’s seat by a comfortable margin. At the time, Republicans had expected more from their nominee Tim Burns, who also lost that November.

@JMilesColeman

Jumping back to 2022, we already have three special elections scheduled: CA-22, MN-01, AK-AL. Each of those seats is comfortably Republican, but all of them remain at least *somewhat* competitive compared to a district like FL-20, where Democrat Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick won a special general election earlier this year with nearly 80% of the vote. Let’s dive into all three of these seats to look at the vacancy grounds, the candidates, the campaigns, and Split Ticket’s general expectations.

*The latest developments in TX-34 will be discussed in a future article*

*Keep in mind that special elections occurring during redistricting years are held under old lines, even if subsequent general elections in the same cycle use new lines*

*All screenshots below are courtesy of Dave’s Redistricting App*

CA-22

Located in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, California’s 22nd is a plurality- Hispanic seat that backed Trump 52-46% in 2020. It winds its way south from the majority-white suburbs east of Fresno down to Hispanic communities like Visalia and Tulare, with some rural Latino support scattered in between. The majority of the vote is cast in the Fresno County portion of the 22nd, but the Tulare section makes its Republican lean a bit more comfortable. Most of the seat’s precincts swung leftward between the 2016 and 2020 Presidential races.

The mixed agricultural character of the 22nd district was represented for two decades by a one-time Tulare County dairy farmer: Republican Devin Nunes. In 2002, at just 29 years old, Nunes made his second Congressional bid. He mobilized his Tulare base to beat Ex-Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson and State Representative Mike Briggs in the primary. The general election was a cakewalk, and Nunes did not face a competitive reelection until 2018.

Nunes outran Trump in 2020, but put up a margin that was far less impressive than those by which he had previously won in Presidential years. Split Ticket’s 2020 WAR model (by Lakshya Jain) actually indicates that Nunes underperformed by over 8 points. The veteran Congressman’s questionable tenure as Chairman of the House Intelligence committee solidified his status as a polarizing figure and probably reduced his credibility with the voters to some extent.

*Lakshya Jain has previously written about the penalties more extreme members pay at the ballot box, which one can read here*

Whatever one thinks of Nunes personally, being in the minority caucus for the first time in over a decade clearly did not appeal to him. Already a staunch ally of Donald Trump, the California conservative resigned at the start of the new year to head the former President’s new media corporation: Trump Media & Technology Group. Since then, a few notable developments have shaken up the field in important ways.

Originally, State Senator Andreas Borgeas appeared to be the GOP’s shoo-in candidate for the district. He had Hispanic heritage, campaign infrastructure, valuable political experience, and Fresno connections. But Borgeas decided to drop out after long-time Congressman Tom McClintock decided to carpetbag to the newly-drawn 5th district. Had Borgeas wanted to run for a full term in November (after the special) he would have been forced into a divisive primary against McClintock.

Since then, Republicans have rallied around a place-holder candidate who is altogether disinterested in challenging McClintock: former State Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway from Tulare County.

Five total candidates will appear on the open primary ballot in addition to Conway: (R) Elizabeth Heng, (R) Michael Maher, (R) Matt Stoll, (D) Lourin Hubbard, and (D) Eric Garcia. The top two finishers in the April 5th jungle round, regardless of party, will advance to the June 7th runoff. Split Ticket considers Conway the frontrunner in both rounds of the upcoming election. Likely Republican

MN-01

Running along Minnesota’s lengthy border with Iowa, Minnesota’s 1st district backed Trump by 10 points. Like the 7th and 8th districts, the 1st has moved consistently rightward since the end of the Obama-era. Rochester, Mankato, and Winona make up the bulk of the seat’s Democratic base. The rest of the district is relatively rural and predisposed toward the GOP as of late, much like the territory directly to its south in the Hawkeye State.

For about a decade, this region of Minnesota was represented by Democrat Tim Walz. He got his start as a political outsider-turned-Congressman in 2006, when the blue wave swept Republican incumbent Gil Gutknecht out of office. After his initial election, Walz generally had easy sailing – surviving Republican blowouts in both 2010 and 2014.

With that kind of record, its not hard to see how pre-Trump pundits expected Walz to comfortably win. It must have been quite a shock when Republican Jim Hagedorn, the son of a former Congressman, came within 2,500 votes of ousting the veteran Democrat. In hindsight, though, the fact that Walz got 12% more of the vote than Hillary Clinton was nothing short of incredible. Fellow Democrats Collin Peterson (7) and Rick Nolan (8) put up similar overperformances.

Walz successfully sought the governorship in 2018, leaving his vulnerable House seat up for grabs. The environment was fairly Democratic overall, but it was not blue enough to stop Republicans from flipping three open seats, two of which were Trump-won districts in Minnesota. But Hagedorn’s victory over Democrat Dan Feehan was not impressive – just 1,315 votes – so no one was surprised when he lagged behind Trump during his reelection. The Split Ticket 2020 WAR model placed his relative underperformance at almost 10 points.

Sadly, Congressman Hagedorn passed away on February 17th following a lengthy battle with cancer. Since his death, both party primary fields have become nothing short of inundated with candidates. Because this district is markedly-Republican, and Biden’s approval ratings remain low, it is not surprising that prominent Democrats like Dan Feehan have passed on running. Overall, the GOP primary field is more credible than its counterpart because Republicans have a larger candidate base to draw from.

The two most credible contenders on the GOP side are Jeremy Munson, Brad Finstad. State Representative Jeremy Munson, from the Mankato area, was recently endorsed by Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry. Brad Finstad, a former legislator, had strong enough connections to the Department of Agriculture to secure Pennsylvania Congressman Glenn Thompson’s support. Thompson will chair the Agriculture Committee if the GOP should win the House this year. A notable candidacy declination came from Rochester state Senator and 2018 candidate Carla Nelson, who declined to join the 10-person GOP primary field.

But the elephant in the room for Republicans is Jennifer Carnahan, Congressman Hagedorn’s widow. Among other improprieties, Carnahan resigned in disgrace as Chairwoman of the Minnesota GOP and was caught on tape predicting her late husband’s death. If a split field were to deliver Carnahan the nomination, the race would probably garner more attention than it otherwise would. Split Ticket would still favor the Republicans to hold the seat in that situation.

@JMilesColeman & UVA Center for Politics

The Democratic field is also particularly crowded, though many of its contenders will not pack enough of a punch to have a chance at the nomination. With Feehan’s declination, ex-Hormel Foods CEO Jeffrey Ettinger now seems like the Democrats’ top candidate.

Although Ettinger is certainly not a bad recruit, it is difficult seeing him beating any 1st district Republican amid a poor national environment. The primary here will be held on May 24th, followed by a special general election on August 9th. Safe Republican (Likely Republican if Carnahan)

AK-AL

The nation’s final frontier is in many respects its most mysterious states. Much of that intrigue extends to its electoral history. Alaska has not voted for a Democratic Presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but the state as a whole has been getting more marginal. Former President Trump won it by just 10 points, down from George W. Bush’s 31 point blowout in 2000.

At other levels, Republicans have had less consistent success. Between 1982 and 1998, Democrats won 4 of the 5 gubernatorial contests in the state. Former Governor Tony Knowles put up a tough fight for Senate against Lisa Murkowski in 2004, and underdog Mark Begich upset political Republican institution Ted Stevens in 2008 even though McCain was winning Alaska by 22 points presidentially.

@MappingFL

Another Alaska political veteran was Don Young. Congressman for his state’s At-Large district for nearly half a century, Young cared deeply for every aspect of his beloved frontier. He survived some tough races during his time (2008) but always managed to come out on top. At the time of his death last week, he had easily broken the record for longest serving Republican member of the U.S. House in American history.

*Above is a map showing Young’s slim first victory in the 1973 special election held to replace Congressman Nick Begich. The incumbent had previously gone missing in a bush plane accident while campaigning with Louisiana Democrat Hale Boggs, who was next in line for the Speakership*

It is still a bit soon to know for sure how the field running to replace the late Alaskan legend will shape up, but Split Ticket has an early idea. Before one can look into the candidates, though, it is important to understand the new election system that Alaska will be using this year.

In 2020, voters in the state narrowly approved a ranked-choice voting (RCV) referendum that revamps the entire Alaskan election process. Under the new rules, all candidates of all parties appear on the same jungle primary ballot. Unlike a standard two-round election, the top four candidates from the first round – not just two – advance to the general election under the Alaskan system. The following general would then decided using RCV.

The special primary will take place on June 11th, followed by an August 16th runoff. This will be the first Congressional special election in U.S. history to be decided using some form of RCV.

Republican Nick Begich III, the grandson of Don Young’s predecessor, was already pursuing a primary challenge before the incumbent’s unexpected death. He is currently the only member of the GOP in the race, and has deep enough pockets from his business connections to fund a credible campaign.

*Another interested Republican is Sarah Palin, the former Governor and Tea Party scion who served as John McCain’s 2008 Vice Presidential running mate*

Other candidates in the race so far include Democrat Christopher Constant, a member of the Anchorage Assembly, and Independents Al Gross and Gregg Brelsford. Gross ran a high-profile Senate campaign in 2020, which he ultimately lost to incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan. Republicans should be strong favorites to hold onto this statewide seat when all is said and done. Safe Republican

Conclusion

One should never look too much into special elections, especially when they occur in seats that would normally not be highly competitive. At the same time, it would be unwise for any observer to ignore these one of a kind contests. Whether these three races prove odd and fickle or highly-predictive, Split Ticket looks forward to covering them in detail along with this cycle’s other contested primary elections.

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

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