GOP Nervous About Trends in Special House Races With all the focus on the presidential race, it's easy to forget about the elections to fill open House seats — and what they might say about the Republicans' congressional chances in November. Still, readers can't stop wondering about the contest for the White House, including the possibility of an Obama-Clinton ticket.
NPR logo GOP Nervous About Trends in Special House Races

GOP Nervous About Trends in Special House Races

Republicans were stunned when Democrat Richard Vander Veen won Jerry Ford's House seat in a special 1974 election. The result forecasted a disastrous year for the GOP. hide caption

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Democrats have won two GOP House seats this year. All eyes are on next week's special election in Mississippi to fill the seat vacated by now-Sen. Roger Wicker (R). hide caption

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His smashing victory in North Carolina may accelerate a movement of supers — get it? — to Obama. hide caption

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Sixty-three years ago today, famed Jersey City boss Frank Hague won his final term as mayor. hide caption

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In a year when the race for president has become one of the most memorable in history, and when an unusually large number of Senate races — perhaps 10 — have the potential to be nail-biters, you can understand if the battles for the House are a bit under-appreciated.

But for those of us political junkies — say, what a name for a column! — who follow this stuff, congressional races are as close to raw, retail politics as you can get. And for those of us with long memories, it has always been the special elections that are most memorable. Often if one party or the other finds itself on the short end of these special elections, which are called when a member of Congress dies or resigns or is elected to another office, a trend develops that can portend something big for November.

Some observers are seeing a potential trend in 2008, with Democrats picking up two Republican House seats and potentially on the verge of taking another one next week.

The mind drifts back to early 1974. By all accounts, there was no question the Republicans were going to have a brutal year, with President Nixon enmeshed in the Watergate scandal and a Democratic Congress breathing down his neck.

The first warning sign for the GOP came in early February in Pennsylvania, in the race to succeed Rep. John Saylor (R), who had died the previous October. In a district that had more Democrats than Republicans, 41-year-old Democratic state legislator John Murtha eked out a 230-vote victory. The national Republican Party, under the leadership of Chairman George H.W. Bush, insisted that it was not a referendum of Nixon, arguing that Saylor had been winning in a Democratic district because of his personal popularity.

But it was impossible to explain away what happened two weeks later. That was the special election held to replace Rep. Gerald Ford (R-MI), who had become Nixon's vice president in the aftermath of Spiro Agnew's resignation. In making the race a referendum on the "moral bankruptcy of Richard Nixon," Richard Vander Veen won the election and became the first Democrat to carry the Michigan district since 1910. (Vander Veen was clever enough to argue that by calling on Nixon to quit, he was trying to make the local boy, the still-popular Jerry Ford, president.)

Two weeks after that, the venue switched to the suburbs of Cincinnati. Rep. William Keating (R-OH) had resigned to become president of the Cincinnati Enquirer. The GOP was split, nominating a moderate, Willis Gradison, over a former John Birch Society member who urged his fellow Republicans to sit out the election. The district had elected a Democrat only once since 1936. But the Dems won again, with Thomas Luken running against not only Nixon, but also gasoline shortages and high unemployment.

Mid-April brought another special election and another Democratic pickup. Rep. James Harvey (R-MI), who held the seat since 1961, had resigned to accept a federal judgeship. Nixon had even come out to the district to campaign for the Republican candidate. But the Democrat, Bob Traxler, won the seat — the first Democrat to do so since 1932.

For many of us who followed politics in that fascinating year, those special elections still stand out. Watching one after another longtime GOP seat fall, we knew the Democratic Party was on the precipice of a significant election blowout in the fall. The Democrats picked up an additional 43 seats that November.

Fast forward to 1994, when the policies of President Bill Clinton were giving Republicans hope of something they had not accomplished since 1952 — winning a majority in the House. This time, it was the GOP that was reaping the benefits of having an unpopular incumbent of the opposite party in the White House. The number of special elections paled in comparison to 1974, and the results were not as dramatic: Republicans succeeded Democrats in conservative districts, such as in Oklahoma, where Frank Lucas won the election to replace the departed 10-term Democrat Glenn English; and in Kentucky, where Ron Lewis won the special election following the death of 20-term Democrat William Natcher. (Lewis was the first Republican to win the seat since the Civil War.) Neither result was really front-page material, but it did give us the sense that it was going to be a GOP year. And it was — Republicans netted 52 seats and won a majority in the House they held for 12 years.

Why the trip down memory lane?

Democrats have now won two special House elections formerly held by Republicans. On March 8, they took the Illinois seat that had been occupied by ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert, and on Saturday, they won a seat in Louisiana held for more than two decades by Richard Baker (and by the GOP since 1975). Republicans have argued, with some validity, that their candidates in both races were seriously flawed. Jim Oberweis, the GOP candidate hoping to win in Illinois, had a rocky relationship with his fellow Republicans and had alienated many in the party with earlier runs for governor and the U.S. Senate. In Louisiana, the GOP candidate was Woody Jenkins, a controversial figure who nearly won a Senate race in 1996 but who concealed a campaign payment to ex-Klansman David Duke for his mailing lists. Jenkins, too, was not the Republicans' favorite candidate.

But the GOP is staring at another potential loss May 13 in Mississippi's 1st Congressional District, vacant since Roger Wicker (R) was appointed to the Senate to succeed Trent Lott. The candidates there are Travis Childers (D), a local court official, and Greg Davis (R), the mayor of Southaven. At first glance, Davis is not a "flawed" candidate, so the Republicans don't have that to fall back on. But some see the strategy being used in the district as being flawed.

One tactic the GOP employed in the Louisiana special — and that is being repeated in Mississippi — is attempting to tie the Democratic candidate to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama or both. Neither, the reasoning went, is especially popular in these two conservative bastions. But the Democratic candidates — winner Don Cazayoux (pronounced KAZH-oo) in Louisiana and hopeful Childers in Mississippi — are pro-life/pro-gun conservatives who aren't the type to hang around with "liberal elites" such as Pelosi or Obama. (Cazayoux benefited from a sizable black turnout in Baton Rouge for his 49-46 percent victory.)

For their part, Republicans insist the strategy was/is a success, saying it helped keep the race in Louisiana closer than it would have been. Meanwhile, Childers came within 400 votes of winning the Mississippi seat outright on April 22, and Republicans are bracing themselves for what might happen next week. The GOP has held the seat since veteran Democrat Jamie Whitten retired in 1994.

Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the results in Louisiana were a "wake-up call" for the party. But with skyrocketing gasoline prices, an unpopular war and an even more unpopular president, one wonders what's left in the GOP arsenal to fend off more defeats.

In the other special House election from Louisiana, decided on May 3, state Sen. Steve Scalise kept the seat of now-Gov. Bobby Jindal in GOP hands. Scalise won with 75 percent of the vote.

Awaiting the runoff in Mississippi, the House now consists of 235 Democrats and 199 Republicans.

And now, your questions:

Q: I see that former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern has urged Hillary Clinton to get out of the race. I also remember that she, and her husband, worked for McGovern in Texas in 1972. On a related note, you mentioned in your column last week that the late Paul Tsongas was the first candidate to throw his hat into the ring for 1992 in April of '91. If memory serves, McGovern, when he ran in 1972, declared his candidacy even earlier in the cycle than Tsongas. My guess: December of 1970. Right? – Scott Schnipper, Brooklyn, N.Y.

A: Pretty close. McGovern officially announced on Jan. 18, 1971. Like Tsongas two decades later, McGovern was the first to declare his candidacy. At the time, he was getting about 2 percent in the polls.

Regarding McGovern's switch this week from Clinton to Obama, NPR's Peter Overby offered that perhaps McGovern simply could have said he was behind Clinton 1,000 percent.

Q: Why are people making such a big deal about John McCain's advanced age when he's only 11 years older than Hillary Clinton? – Jeremy Potts, Sydney, Australia

A: It's true that Hillary Clinton, in the unlikely event she wins her party's nomination, would be the oldest Democrat to run for president since Harry Truman (age 63) in 1948. But McCain, who turns 72 in August, would be the oldest first-term president in history. That, and the fact that he has had cancer surgery, is what accounts for the focus.

Q: Do you think that Hillary Clinton would consider running as an independent if she were to lose the Democratic nomination? – Douglas Maxwell, Phoenix

A: Absolutely not.

Q: What do you think of this scenario: Obama wins the nomination, Hillary is his running mate. If the ticket wins, Clinton is afforded a meaningful role, becoming a Dick Cheney-type of vice president. – Harry Toder, Springfield, Ky.

A: In this totally unpredictable year, nothing would surprise me. Well, except this. I can't see it happening. Not with the unhappiness in the Obama camp about what they see as the Clintons' focus on race. And not with Bill Clinton lurking in the background. Or, more likely, the foreground.

MICHIGAN SEEMS LIKE A DREAM TO ME NOW. FLORIDA TOO: The conversation in last week's column about the disputed delegates from Michigan and Florida led to a flurry of comments. Mark Bubriski, the communications director for the Florida Democratic Party, said my assertion that the DNC told the two states that if they violated the primary window they would lose their delegates "is simply wrong." Mark says the DNC rules originally called for a 50-percent reduction in delegates — not 100 percent — a "huge distinction." Plus, he adds that the state party "advocated against the early primary, but the final legislation included a provision to ditch the controversial touch-screen machines — an important issue for Democrats, especially in Florida."

Donald Moody of Tallahassee, Fla., agrees. "After the heavily dominated Florida GOP legislature was determined to move up the primary date to January, ostensibly to boost GOP Gov. Charlie Crist's standing as a potential McCain VP, the minority Democrats reluctantly voted for the plan that was going to be passed with or without them. The lesser-known tradeoff for Democrats for voting for the 'inevitable' January primary date was to be at least rid of the questionable voting machines and mandate a paper trail for every voter to see that their votes are counted correctly." Donald adds, "All of this doesn't excuse the DNC for basically ignoring the votes of a record number of Florida Democrats who went to the polls in January and discounting our votes — for Hillary or Obama. Every Florida Democrat should be rightfully outraged."

Also, Stephen Gianelli of San Francisco rejects my point that Hubert Humphrey had more popular votes than George McGovern in the 1972 Democratic primaries and yet no one questioned McGovern's right to the nomination. Stephen writes, "The difference is that McGovern garnered enough pledged delegates to win the nomination outright. This year, neither Clinton nor Obama will."

And there's more:

Tammy Torres of St. Charles, Minn.: "I suppose Clinton could say she technically won the primaries in Michigan and Florida, but she knew those votes would ultimately not count, right? How can she now claim she deserves these delegates when she had no competition? Where does that leave us and the [Democrats'] rules committee trying to come up with a fair solution?"

Ross Nicholson of Tampa, Fla.: "You let Howard Dean disenfranchise these states, all to Hillary's detriment. Why don't you complain that Obama can get blown out by a landslide (as in Pennsylvania) and yet keep half the delegates from that state?"

Jill Quaney of Auburn, Kan.: "What about all the voters who decided NOT to vote because the DNC said their votes wouldn't count? Decision-makers at the DNC need to factor that in when they rule on Michigan and Florida. Hillary Clinton certainly is not."

Jerry Bixby of Troy, Mich.: "Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and [Michigan superdelegate] Debbie Dingell have been working on moving the Michigan primary up for more years than I can remember. Their hearts are in the right place. It is the stubborn DNC that created the problem in the first place. Sometimes the best way to win a rules change is to defy the rule — sort of a form of civil disobedience."

Mimi Rosenn of Kodiak, Alaska: "Clinton's claim that she should be entitled to the larger share of Florida and Michigan's delegates is more than a little disingenuous. In Michigan, when she was asked why she was the only major candidate not to withdraw her name from the ballot, she said something like, 'Well, everyone knows it won't count anyway so it doesn't make a difference.'"

Mary Fumich of Lakewood, Ohio: "Immediately after the primary in Michigan was declared invalid, an Obama supporter complained that because he was unable to vote for Obama [who wasn't on the ballot], he instead cast a Republican vote. I wonder how many other Obama supporters did the same thing, and how could they possibly estimate the Clinton/Obama ratio without counting those crossover votes?"

AN APB ON OPB: A big and appreciative thank you to the wonderful folks at Oregon Public Broadcasting, who endured a Ken Rudin station visit last week. Special thanks to Steven Bass, the president and CEO of OPB; Dan Metziga, the senior vice president for development; Cheryl Ikemiya, the director of leadership giving at OPB; and Lori Bernet, the events coordinator who supplied me with Diet Coke.


May 13 – Democratic presidential primary in West Virginia. State/congressional primaries in Nebraska (where GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel is retiring) and West Virginia (where Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Gov. Joe Manchin, both Dems, are up for re-election). Special runoff election in Mississippi's 1st District to fill the seat vacated by now-Sen. Roger Wicker (R).

May 20 – Primaries in Kentucky and Oregon (presidential as well as state/congressional). Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) are seeking re-election. State/congressional primary only in Arkansas, where Sen. Mark Pryor (D) is running without opposition.

May 22-26 – Libertarian Party national convention, Denver.

May 27 – State/congressional primary in Idaho. Sen. Larry Craig (R) is retiring.

May 30 – Virginia Republican state convention, Richmond.

May 31 – Democratic National Committee meeting on rules to address Michigan/Florida delegate situation.

June 1 – Democratic presidential primary in Puerto Rico.

June 3 – Primaries in Montana and South Dakota (presidential as well as state/congressional). Sens. Max Baucus (D-MT) and Tim Johnson (D-SD) are seeking re-election. State/congressional primaries also in Alabama (GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions is seeking re-election), California, Iowa (Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin is up), New Jersey (Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg faces a primary) and New Mexico (GOP Sen. Pete Domenici is retiring).

POLITICAL JUNKIE EVERY WEDNESDAY AT THE NEWSEUM: For years now (I know, it seems longer), Talk of the Nation, NPR's live call-in program, has featured a "Political Junkie" segment every Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET. Now TOTN (and its Junkie sidekick) take their act each Wednesday before a live audience at the Newseum, Washington's new interactive museum dedicated to journalism. It is located at 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., off Sixth Street.

This Wednesday's show featured special guests Donna Brazile, the Democratic strategist, and Glen Bolger, the Republican pollster, as well as an expanded conversation on race and politics with Professor Ron Walters of the University of Maryland and David Bositis from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Here's one comment, from M. Graham of Miami, Fla., regarding that show: "When Brazile described the Democratic Party as 'mash potatoes and gravy,' Bolger's response to her was that mash potatoes and gravy are unhealthy. Donna's response to that should have been, 'At least it beats starvation.' There has been plenty of ethical starvation on the political landscape over the past eight years."

Want to be part of the live audience? The tickets are free. And you get to see what Ken Rudin looks like, a worrisome proposition in any case. Send an e-mail request to

And remember, if your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can hear the program on the Web or on HD Radio. And if you are a subscriber to Sirius radio, you can find the show there as well (siriusly).

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly political podcast. It goes up on the Web site every Thursday and can be heard here. Want to subscribe? It's easy, and it's free! Simply go to the iTunes Web site, type in "It's All Politics," and you're there.

*******Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

This day in campaign history: Frank Hague, the legendary, popular and corrupt mayor of Jersey City, N.J., wins his eighth successive term (May 8, 1945). He will resign as mayor in 1947.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: