Vacancy Signs Point to a Very "Special" Summer


Just as Ben Franklin assured us of two certainties in life, let the Crystal Ball assure you of two certainties in congressional special elections this year: deaths and taxpayer-funded University posts will be the cause (granted, you won’t hear us complaining too much about the latter). We’ll explain in a minute.

At the moment, to be perfectly precise, the U.S. House stands at 231 Democrats and 201 Republicans. Of course, as every Politics 101 student can tell you, the House should consist of a total of 435 members (or 437, if the body decides to grant additional representation for Utah and Washington, DC). That can mean only one thing: less than five months into the term of the 110th Congress, three districts have sprouted vacancy signs thanks to unusual developments. And a fourth (maybe even a fifth) vacancy could be on the way.

For those of you like we at the Crystal Ball, who cannot wait the one year, five months, and four days–but hey, who’s counting?–until the next regular congressional elections, the special elections created by those vacancies tide us over. Often, these mid-session races are the hardest to predict, because turnout levels can vary wildly. In plenty of cases, exceedingly low voter participation and brief campaign timetables turn special elections into friends-and-neighbors affairs in which candidates really only compete for support in their home bases.

Occasionally, these races can present a mid-cycle opportunity for a one party to steal a seat from the other side. That’s not quite the case so far this year, but sometimes even intense intra-party battles within safe districts can still offer us some insight into the nation’s political climate–and we believe the summer storms now brewing in these tiny slices of the country are in fact worth watching. To date, this year’s lineup of safe-seat vacancies is remarkable for its bipartisan symmetry of unforeseen circumstances.

Within the past few months, one member from each party–Charlie Norwood (R) of Georgia and Juanita Millender-McDonald (D) of California–has died of cancer. While our condolences go out to the family, friends and constituents of both dedicated public servants, government must go on. It’s also possible that by summer’s end, one member from each party–Kenny Hulshof (R) of Missouri and Marty Meehan (D) of Massachusetts–will have accepted top-level administrative posts at large public universities in their home states. No doubt, these politicians have discovered what the Crystal Ball has known for years: the academy is just more fun.

The contests in Democratic-held districts each feature female favorites dueling for safe open seats, an especially welcome bonus for women’s groups such as EMILY’s List that celebrated Nancy Pelosi’s swearing-in as Speaker of the House earlier this year. Crossing the aisle, the races in Republican-held districts will most likely also lack the allure of potential hostile takeover, but make up for it in the entertainment value of the campaigns the candidates will wage.

So hold on tight as the Crystal Ball reads the vacancy signs across the land on this very “special” summer road trip:

GEORGIA’s 10th DISTRICT: Athens, parts of Augusta

  • Previous Representative: Charlie Norwood (R) (deceased)
  • Open Primary Date: June 19th, 2007
  • Runoff Date: July 17th, 2007
  • Outlook: Likely Republican

The first special election will be held in Georgia’s 10th District to fill the seat of veteran Rep. (and dentist) Charlie Norwood, who died of lung cancer in February. The race to replace kicks off with an unusual free-for-all open primary on June 19th in which six Republicans and three Democrats will compete on the same ballot. A runoff will be held four weeks later on July 17th in the likely event that none of the candidates garners 50 percent or more of the vote.

For most of the race, Norwood’s heir apparent has been State Senator Jim Whitehead, who hails from Norwood’s area north of Augusta and has kept most potential rivals at bay and out of the running. Recently, though, he has been suffering from a bad case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. In a column that appeared in The Elberton Star, Whitehead admitted suggesting that someone “probably ought to bomb” the University of Georgia–sparing the football team, of course. Then, in a March 26 letter to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Whitehead claimed that liberals have been registering “known al-Qaida terrorists” to vote. Will Whitehead keep quiet long enough to win? We shall see.

Other Republican contenders include conservative activist Bill Greene and physician Paul Broun. Greene has enlisted the help of former Presidential candidate Alan Keyes to stress Greene’s conservative bona fides and to help raise money. Broun is hoping the fourth time is the charm, as he was unsuccessful in attempts to reach Capitol Hill in 1990, 1992, and 1996.

Democrats are hoping to take advantage of the battle royal on the Republican side and have mostly united behind former Yahoo! Executive Jim Marlow. If divisions among Republicans can keep Whitehead from reaching the 50 percent he needs to escape a runoff, and enough Democrats from Athens make it out to the polls, then Marlow could well become number two vote getter and advance to the runoff. From there, Democrats’ victory recipe calls for Marlow’s free spending and Whitehead’s self-destruction.

The eventual winner of this race will very likely be a Republican, but Democrats are quick to point out that mid-cycle redistricting made this district much less of a GOP slam dunk than it was pre-2007. The addition of liberal Athens to the district, designed to enhance Republican prospects in adjoining districts, brought down Bush’s 2004 percentage from 72 percent to 62 percent in the district’s new configuration. Sometimes politics is all about unintended consequences.

CALIFORNIA’s 37th DISTRICT: Compton, Long Beach, parts of Los Angeles

  • Previous Representative: Juanita Millender-McDonald (D) (deceased)
  • Open Primary Date: June 26th, 2007
  • Runoff Date: August 21st, 2007
  • Outlook: Safe Democratic

Next up on the special elections docket is the race to succeed the late Democratic Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, who died of cancer last month. In this 3:1 for Kerry, mixed-majority-minority district, it’s no surprise that the field is now dominated by two main Democratic competitors who represent the two major racial groups in the 37th. In the end, the outcome of the race may revolve around the demographics of the district, where 43 percent of residents are Hispanic and 25 percent are African-American, yet black registered voters slightly outnumber Hispanic registered voters, 25 percent to 22 percent.

Although Millender-McDonald’s daughter, Valerie McDonald, was at one time thought of as a viable potential successor, local African-American political leadership has instead coalesced behind the candidacy of state Assemblywoman Laura Richardson. The Congressional Black Caucus has officially remained mum, but several members have indicated they would support McDonald over Richardson, spelling dissent that could end many years of African-American representation of this Los Angeles County district.

The candidate who could exploit this division is state Senator Jenny Oropeza, who has won the backing of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and recently won the California Democratic Party’s endorsement, garnering 71 percent of delegates’ votes. Richardson received only 27 percent, but just two days later won the endorsement of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, whose manpower and publicity may yet turn the tide in her favor.

Since Millender-McDonald originally won election to the seat in 1996, the district has seen a decline in African-American population and a concurrent rise in the number of Hispanics, the result not only of demographic trends, but also a drastic redistricting in 2002. If the party’s endorsement vote tells us anything about the leanings of the remainder of the electorate, white and Asian voters may support Oropeza in greater numbers, carrying her over the finish line.

At the moment, Oropeza holds the upper hand, but the race could tighten in the intervening weeks if the Congressional Black Caucus changes directions and comes out officially for Richardson.


  • Outgoing Representative: Marty Meehan (D) (resigning to accept chancellorship of UMass-Lowell)
  • Primary Date: September 4th, 2007
  • General Date: October 16th, 2007
  • Outlook: Safe Democratic

The green flag has dropped in Massachusetts’ 5th Congressional District, as five prominent Democrats are fighting to replace departing Democratic Rep. Martin Meehan, who will be assuming the title of Chancellor at UMass-Lowell on July 1st. While the filing deadline for the vacancy is still month and a half away, the Republicans have come up almost completely empty-handed. The frontrunners in the Democratic primary–tantamount to election in this district–include Niki Tsongas, widow of Senator and presidential candidate Paul Tsongas, and Lowell City Councilor Eileen Donoghue.

Although three male state Representatives are also in the race, we guess that 2007 will be the year Massachusetts finally sends a woman back to the House, ending the drought of female representation that has endured since Republican Margaret Heckler left office a quarter of a century ago. Democratic PAC EMILY’s List has jumped at the opportunity and endorsed Tsongas over Donoghue, as have many others in the district, including the outgoing Meehan’s wife. Meehan himself has taken a vow of silence of sorts, citing his transition into academia, but many district insiders are viewing his wife’s endorsement as an implicit sign that Tsongas is his preferred replacement.

Only one poll has been made public so far, and it showed Tsongas with a large 36 percent-13 percent lead over Donoghue, with State Rep. Barry Finegold close behind at 10 percent. As the district voted 57 percent for the Democratic presidential nominee in both 2004 and 2000, and since no credible Republican challenger has yet surfaced, there is virtually no chance this district could switch parties this year.

MISSOURI 9th DISTRICT: Columbia, Hannibal

  • Potential Outgoing Representative: Kenny Hulshof (R) (would resign to accept presidency of University of Missouri system)
  • Primary Date: None (nomination by party committee)
  • General Date: Unknown
  • Outlook: Likely Republican

Balancing the loss of Democratic Rep. Meehan to academia is the possible departure of Republican Rep. Kenny Hulshof (MO-9). Hulshof is one of three finalists for the position of University of Missouri system president and recently said the post “is one of the very few jobs for which I would consider leaving Congress.” Although the curators of the UM system remain tight-lipped, the same cannot be said of the Show Me State political rumor mill’s regulars, who have already produced the names of at least a dozen potential congressional candidates.

Democrats held this Northeast Missouri seat for 76 years before Hulshof’s first victory in 1996, and given the political climate, they are optimistic about their chances of retaking it. Two Democrats with all-star credentials, former fill-in Gov. Roger Wilson and former Lieutenant Governor Joe Maxwell, live in the district, as do a smattering of Democratic state legislators. Wilson and Maxwell have taken very few steps into the political limelight in recent years, but even without one of their A-Listers, Democrats feel they have a substantial bench from which to field candidates. Although only one Democrat, a county commissioner, has declared an intention to run, the race is still hypothetical at this point, so success in candidate recruitment is not yet a critical focus.

Republicans, however, have every reason to be confident they can hold the seat, given the recent trends in the district–there’s little question it has become more conservative since Hulshof defeated Democratic Rep. Harold Volkmer a decade ago. In 1996, the year of Hulshof’s first election, Bill Clinton carried the district by two percent, but in 2000 George W. Bush won with a 55 percent to 42 percent margin and improved upon that margin in 2004, carrying it 59 percent to 41 percent.

Republicans also have their fair share of potential candidates waiting in the wings, including a judge, a businessman, a state representative, and one of Missouri Senator Kit Bond’s aides. Another oft-mentioned name is Bond’s son, Sam Bond, who is a Marine currently serving in Iraq. What makes the younger Bond’s possible candidacy even more intriguing is the fact that the special election candidates would be nominated by each party’s congressional district committee members, instead of by a primary election, making the elder Bond’s organizational support even more significant. At this point, most Republicans have held back on committing to the race; upstaging the popular Hulshof, the man they would hope to succeed, would be the last thing any of them would want to do.

Although this race may never even happen, and would probably occur well into the fall if it does, it could easily turn into the most competitive special election of this Congress–that may not be saying much, but we’ll find out in due time.


  • Potential Outgoing Representative: Bobby Jindal (R) (would resign to become Governor)
  • Primary Date: Unknown
  • General Date: Unknown
  • Outlook: Safe Republican

A fifth seat we’ll be keeping our eye on this year is Rep. Bobby Jindal’s in suburban New Orleans. Jindal is the odds-on favorite in Louisiana’s gubernatorial race slated for October 20th, 2007. His preeminence and other factors have nearly cleared the field of Democratic challengers, as unpopular current Governor Kathleen Blanco and popular former Senator John Breaux both passed on the contest. Although there’s still time for a serious challenge to Jindal to emerge, most Bayou political aficionados peg him as the very clear favorite.

While no votes will be cast for five months, the scene is currently set for an October 20th Jindal victory of 50 percent or more, which would preempt a general election runoff. His win would trigger a special election, but keeping in mind that President Bush won Louisiana’s 1st congressional district with 71 percent in 2004 and Jindal reached 78 percent and 88 percent in his two campaigns, his successor will most definitely be a fellow Republican. It may be a useless exercise to guess the makeup of the potentially huge field of GOP contenders at this point, but it’s safe to say this district has become something of a mint for prominent Louisianan politicians: it produced current Sen. David Vitter and has comfortably carried Jindal throughout his gubernatorial holding pattern.

Although some Bayou State observers tell us they consider Jindal a virtual shoo-in, there is reason to be cautious. Jindal really should have won the governorship in 2003, and most pre-election polls showed as much. Look carefully at many GOP-leaning precincts in rural northern Louisiana from four years ago. Many voters there simply could not abide choosing a very dark-skinned sub-continental Indian American in ’03, and they cast ballots for a woman Democrat–not exactly their usual preference–to make sure it didn’t happen. Already, Democrats are subtly undermining Jindal by referring to him as “Piyush,” his first name. Actually, it isn’t subtle at all: the goal of using his foreign sounding given name is blatantly obvious, and smacks of racism, a tactic that should be condemned whether the insult is being hurled by Democrats or Republicans. We’ll still bet on Jindal, just not heavily at this stage. He will need weak opponents and a strong aura of invincibility all the way to October in order to win.