What’s So Special About Special Elections?

In the event an elected office becomes vacant (most often due to an incumbent’s death or resignation), in many cases an election is held to fill the vacancy.

Colloquially referred to as “special elections,” these elections don’t follow the conventional calendar for general and mid-term elections. The timing of special elections – as well as whether a special election is called at all – depends on the law of the particular state or local jurisdiction.

While most such elections languish in obscurity, sometimes the perceived relevance of a particular special election to the greater political landscape often affords it uncharacteristic national attention. As such, much of the focus of special elections concerns not so much specific platforms and candidates, but rather what one candidate’s victory (and margin of victory) mean for the greater political landscape.

Parties see special elections as barometers of national trends

As of late, considerable media coverage has centered on special elections for Montana’s sole congressional seat and Georgia’s 6th congressional district (recent special elections in Kansas’ 4th congressional district, California’s 34th congressional district, and South Carolina’s 5th congressional district have attracted less attention). While a Republican victory was presumed in Montana based on President Trump’s double-digit victory in the state, his 1.5-point margin in Georgia 6th district--a district Romney’s carried by 23 points--seemed to signal a tighter race. The unprecedented competition in both races has drawn the eye of not only national media, but the parties themselves. At the national level, both Republicans and Democrats have deployed an array of organizational resources and millions in advertising for both races, with President Trump going so far as to record robocalls for Montana’s election (a violation of Montana election law).

As the dust settles on a Democratic loss by 6 points in Montana (compared to Trump’s 20+ point victory in November) and a close race in Georgia, Democrats are looking to both elections as harbingers of a larger leftward shift in political attitudes. These hopes are not without historical precedent. During an August 2005 special election in Ohio, Democrat Paul Hackett lost by 3 points in a district that recently delivered then-President Bush a 28-point victory, signaling the Democratic sweep of 30 GOP seats that would unfold in 2006.

Given the infrequent and random nature of special elections, attempting to relate their results to a causal pattern fails to pass scientific muster. However, the symbolic gravity of a special election victory (or narrow loss) by a contender can contribute to the momentum necessary to sweep later congressional elections.

Special elections can be seen as measures of Presidential approval

While special elections twenty years ago were viewed as wholly separate from presidential approval, growing political polarization over recent decades has caused special election candidates to leverage voters’ attitudes toward the current administration to galvanize support for their own campaigns. In launching his candidacy through an email fundraiser promising he would “make Trump furious” if elected, Jon Ossoff used precisely this tactic by attempting to tap into voters’ disapproval with the administration. Ossoff’s strategy appears to have succeeded in energizing his Democratic base, as more than three in four Democratic voters in Georgia’s special election see the vote as a “referendum on Trump.” Give how frequently President Trump has been tweeting about both the Montana and Georgia special elections, it seems he is at least cognizant about the relationship between these elections and perceived public approval.

Special elections in Arizona

In Arizona, congressional vacancies occurring less than six months before the next general election are filled during that election cycle, with the winner completing the remainder of the unexpired term. In the event a general election is not scheduled for more than six months after a vacancy, the rules governing replacement turn on whether the vacated seat is in the House or Senate. If the seat is in the House, the governor is tasked with announcing dates for a special primary election and special general election within 72 hours of the post’s resignation, with candidates having thirty days from the governor’s proclamation to file nominating papers and petitions. If the seat is in the Senate, the governor is tasked with appointing a qualified replacement from the previous seat holder’s political party to serve until the next general election.