Opinion

Upcoming special elections will reveal important trends for 2018, 2020

By Bruce Gyory |  

May 18, 2017 |  

(Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

Special elections and elections in Western democracies offer lessons on the underlying dynamics in future general elections here in the United States.

Consider, the surprise special election victories of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown in January of 2010 for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat and former congresswoman-turned-Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul in the May 2011 election for one of the state's most conservative House districts in Western New York.

Brown's victory pointed to the Democrats' chronic weakness with blue-collar Democrats and moderate independents when the hot-button issues are the cost of health care and fear of terrorism. Alternatively, Hochul's victory, predicated on opposition to Paul Ryan's proposed Medicare cuts, spotlighted the dangers of Republicans taking away health care entitlement programs.

These lessons also attend overseas elections. In 2016, Brexit should have better attuned us to anticipate Trump's potential, just as Bill Clinton's centrist appeal predicted Tony Blair's third way success in Great Britain in the 1990's, mirroring Margaret Thatcher foreshadowing Reagan in the 1980's.

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To be clear, special elections and foreign elections are not direct predictors of subsequent national elections; instead they are more akin to diagnostic tests for car trouble. Their real impact is as a bellwether for which party's candidates learn the correct lessons for adjusting to an American electorate that often slams down on the brakes.

Therefore, three upcoming local elections bear watching. The first: the May 23 special election for the 9th Assembly District here in New York state. This vacancy was created by Republican Assemblyman Joe Saladino being selected as the town supervisor for Oyster Bay, due to a corruption scandal ricocheting across Nassau County's Republican Party.

Few imagined this district, whose heart is in Oyster Bay – the central artery of Nassau's vaunted GOP machine – but extends to western Suffolk County, would be in play. Newsday, however, has been accurately sniffing the scent of Democratic hopes for an upset. Two unions with robust vote-generating engines, NYSUT and SEIU 32BJ, are backing Democrat Christine Pellegrino, a teacher herself, against the Conservative Party's Tom Gargiulo, running on the Republican line.

If Pellegrino wins, the electoral power of Democrats’ merging anti-Trump fervor to an anti-corruption message would be established for this year's Nassau County executive race and for the 2018 state Senate and House races on Long Island. Most political handicappers don't project a Pellegrino upset, so if it comes, it will pack added punch.

The second race worth studying is the snap parliamentary election called in Great Britain June 8th. Under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, the Labor party has decided to test their pet theory: Labor has lost recent elections because it has failed to offer British voters a truly radical alternative policy to the Conservative Party. The question becomes whether this sharp lurch to the left by Labor in Britain crashes along the barrier reef of moderate swing voters hitting France's Socialists earlier this month?

Third, the special election that most are correctly keeping an eye on is the 6th Congressional District of Georgia (the northern suburbs of Atlanta).

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Conventional wisdom heading into the initial April 18 primary figured that Jon Ossoff, the leading Democrat, would hit a ceiling of 43 percent in a low- to moderate-turnout race, which would turn the eventual Republican nominee, Karen Handel, into a heavy favorite in the run-off. But Ossoff garnered 48 percent in a high turnout April primary, while the aggregate vote for Democratic candidates was 49 percent, whereas Handel got only 20 percent, while the aggregate Republican vote was 51 percent.

This race is intriguing for many reasons. First, it has one of the highest rates of college-educated voters in the nation (58 percent), at a time when Trump's Republicans are having trouble holding on to the loyalties of highly-educated suburban voters. Second, the district has growing pockets of minority voters, especially Asians.

Three, this contest, as well as the May 25 special election in Montana, will test the reliability of recent polling data nationally, showing Trump's GOP losing support among independents and whites 50 to 64 years in age.

These elections will likely teach hard lessons to both parties. My advice to both Democrats and Republicans? Drive smartly, especially in the suburbs, to avoid falling into a political ditch.

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.

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