2020 is a big year for elections and this week we saw the first two votes of many––special elections in California and Wisconsin. Special elections, which occur in the case of a political office vacancy, are funny: not only in the result but in the meaning of the results.
The meaning of a special election can be either “bellwether” and a “sign of things to come” or a “fluke” due to “little money and low turnout.” It depends on which side wins and where. In this case, two Republicans won special elections to the U.S. House, the first of many elections this year; I’ll let you guess which narrative fits the result.
Both special elections were prompted by incumbents resigning. Let’s begin with California and a Congressional district located along the northern part of the largest county in America: Los Angeles.
The former Democrat U.S. Representative of California’s 25th District, Katie Hill, resigned in December after the House Ethics Committee launched an investigation into an inappropriate relationship between Hill and one of her staff members; relationships between Members and staff are against U.S. House rules. Hill also admitted to an affair with a campaign worker. A historically Republican district, Hill flipped CA-25 in 2018, beating the GOP-incumbent by 9% which mirrored Hilary Clinton's 7% win in the District in 2016.
The CA-25 special election was between Christy Smith (D), California State Assembly Member, and Mike Garcia (R), Annapolis graduate, U.S. Navy pilot, and business executive. At the time of writing, Garcia is up 56% to Smith’s 44% with 142,000 votes in. Due to California’s notoriously slow––and often controversial––mail-in ballot system, officially counting the vote will take weeks. For example, the state finally certified the Super Tuesday vote on March 3 earlier this month.
With an unknown number of mail-in ballots left to count, the Associated Press is not able to officially call the race. But with such a solid lead, CA-25 is all but confirmed, a big win for Republicans in the premier Democrat state. Garcia is a Congressman, at least until they vote again in November when he will likely face Smith again.
The other election you might not have heard about took place in Wisconsin in the 7th Congressional District. U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, a Republican, resigned in September to make time for his family as he was expecting a newborn daughter with health complications (she is doing well). Tom Tiffany, a Republican, beat Democrat Tricia Zunker by 12%, 109,592 votes to 81,928 votes. This election was no major surprise: President Donald Trump won the district by 20 points; Mitt Romney by 3 points in 2012. Most observers expected a smooth victory for Tiffany.
Two special elections, two Republican victories, all amid the coronavirus pandemic. These early contests could be a sign of major Republican victories in November or they are electoral outliers. On Monday––only two days ago––FiveThirtyEight, the data-heavy political outlet of ABC News, seemed to think these elections were a big deal, publishing a story with the headline: Two Special Elections On Tuesday Could Hint At Another Blue Wave In 2020 (link).
Quite a statement. The Republican special election victories might prove contrary to “Another Blue Wave,” but we cannot know for sure––as of this writing, FiveThirtyEight has not published a new article about either special election.