Your 2013 special election primer

Ed Markey

by John Perilli

2013 was supposed to be the year America breathed a big sigh of relief from electoral politics, but there is no escape from the ever-turning wheel of democracy. Aside from a number of scheduled off-year elections, there are three upcoming special elections to fill vacated Congressional and Senate seats, in South Carolina, Missouri, and Massachusetts. One special election already occurred in Illinois in April, resulting in a win for Robin Kelly (D-Ill.)

May 7 – South Carolina 1st Congressional – Mark Sanford vs. Elizabeth Colbert Busch

The “comeback story” is certainly a compelling narrative in American politics, as is the story of the “redeemed sinner.” Former Republican South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who ended his last term in shame after a long-distance affair he was having in Argentina was revealed, is hoping to play both these narratives to his advantage.

Initially, many Republican observers felt sickened by the thought of Sanford’s return, but his poll numbers are steadily strengthening in time for tomorrow’s special election. The last reported numbers have Sanford up by one point, 47 percent to 46 percent. Sanford has relied on tying his opponent Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedy pundit Stephen Colbert, to Minority Leader of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a tactic that has been deadly effective in such a Republican district. South Carolina’s First Congressional District went to Mitt Romney by an 18-point margin in 2012.

Colbert Busch, however, is a businesswoman, which might help her among moderates and centrist-leaning conservatives. She is also dealing with an opponent who is still enmeshed in scandal: Sanford is now being sued by his ex-wife for trespassing. If Colbert Busch can continue to use her clean record to her advantage, she could convince Republicans to stay home rather than vote for the morally dubious Sanford.

June 4 – Missouri’s 8th Congressional – Steve Hodges v. Jason Smith

In December 2012, only a month after reelection, Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson resigned after 16 years in the house to become the CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. This spurred action by both the Democratic and Republican committees of the state, who nominated state representatives Steve Hodges and Jason Smith, respectively, for the open seat.

The 8th District, located in a rural part of southeastern Missouri, is highly Republican, but Hodges identifies himself as a conservative Democrat. His route to victory will involve stressing this fact so he can steal conservative votes, both Republican and unaffiliated, while simultaneously turning out liberals solely on the basis of party identification. Smith only needs to turn out his own party and ensure that he is still actively involved in the race.

June 25 – Massachusetts Senate – Ed Markey vs. Gabriel Gomez

Former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s new job as Secretary of State necessitated the second special Senate election for the Commonwealth in four years. Unlike Missouri, both parties nominated their candidates through primaries, and the winners last Tuesday were senior Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Republican Gabriel Gomez, a businessman and former Navy SEAL.

Markey is an establishment candidate with endorsements ranging from Kerry to Victoria Kennedy, the widow of the late former Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. On the other hand, Gomez is a relatively unknown candidate who admitted to donating to President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. Combine this with the fact that registered Democrats in Massachusetts outnumber registered Republicans by around three to one, and Gomez’s campaign is facing an uncertain future at best.

Still, it would be unwise for the Markey campaign to run a rose-garden campaign. In the last Senate special election in Massachusetts, establishment Democrat Martha Coakley was stunned by upstart Republican Scott Brown, who went on to serve in the seat for two years before he was unseated this past November by Democrat Elizabeth Warren. The latest poll in this race puts Markey ahead by only four points, 44 percent to 40 percent. More than half of Massachusetts voters are unaffiliated, and Gomez can only win if he marshals strong support among the moderates and conservatives of this group. Otherwise, expect the seat to remain blue.

Later this year, two high-profile gubernatorial elections will take place in New Jersey and Virginia, but this spring and summer, the focus will be on these three special elections. As Obama tries to make another push on gun control and strike a deal for immigration reform, electoral momentum could play a pivotal role in what our legislators accomplish this year.


photo of Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) by the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming: