As politicians and pundits gear up for the 2012 election cycle, three contests whose results are sure to generate national press attention are those for open U.S. House seats—in Nevada’s 2nd District and New York’s 9th, both of which will be held on Sept. 13, and in Oregon-1 on Jan. 31.
The unusual attention paid by the media to special elections is nothing new. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter’s first year in the White House, Republicans won five of six special House races. The results were widely interpreted as an early barometer of major political trouble for Carter and the Democrats. In 1993, Republican Ron Lewis’ special election capture of a Kentucky House district that had been in Democratic hands for more than a century was interpreted as an early sign Republicans would gain big in midterm elections the following year. (They won control of both the House and Senate.)
So here’s where the three sure-to-be-watched races stand now:
Nevada-2 (Northern Nevada)—A just-completed PPP poll showed some unexpected results. In the race for the seat of Republican Dean Heller (who was appointed to the Senate earlier this year), State Sen. Mark Amodei—long thought to be the heir apparent to fellow GOPer Heller—clung to a slim (43% to 42%) lead over liberal Democrat and State Treasurer Kate Marshall. The race has taken on some national significance, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) has written fund-raising letters for “my friend Kate Marshall.” A Marshall win would be a particular blow to the GOP, because the 2nd District has never elected a Democrat since it was created in 1981.
New York-9 (Queens-Brooklyn)—For Republicans, a win by nominee and retired TV producer Bob Turner could be the 2011 version of Lewis’ celebrated win in Kentucky in 1993. The resignation of Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner under embarrassing circumstances fueled another nomination for the 70-year-old Turner, who drew a never-anticipated 42% of the vote against the pre-scandal Weiner last fall. Democrats settled on Assemblyman David Weprin, son of the late Assembly Speaker Saul Weprin, as their candidate. Recently, both parties were left speechless by a Siena College poll showing Turner trailing Weprin by only 48% to 42%—stunning in a district in which Democrats have a 3-1 edge in voter registration and which has been firmly in Democratic hands since 1922. The New York Times concluded that voter anger with the Obama administration is fueling the Republican strength here and that “after a long summer of stock market gyrations and battles over the federal debt, voters seemed determined to register their frustrations with Washington.”
Oregon-1 (Portland)—In a district in which Democrats hold an edge of 50,000 registered voters and which they have held without interruption since 1974, a Democratic succession to resigned Rep. David Wu seemed to be a fait accompli. Not so. Democrats have a three-candidate race that appears to be among candidates bound and determined to demonstrate who is the most leftist: State Sen. Suzanne Bonamici, State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian and State Rep. Brad Witt. The Republicans are businessman Rob Cornilles and Lisa Michaels, host of a Portland cable access show. Michaels is a conservative favorite, while Cornilles (who drew 42% of the vote against Wu last time) is considered more moderate. Betting is that GOP voters will give Cornilles another shot at the seat and, if he makes an effort to court the Tea Party activists and other conservatives, he may have a chance at overcoming the winner of what is sure to be a divisive Democratic primary. Both the primary Nov. 8 and the special election in January will be conducted exclusively by mail.