Grant Bosse: What's so special about special elections?
Special elections are liked a crooked card game. Like Canada Bill Jones, we know it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town.
The midterm elections are more than 16 months away, so political reporters are chasing the scraps of special elections, and making a meal out of them.
Opponents of President Donald Trump are criss-crossing the country, searching for signs that The Resistance is taking root. It might happen tonight in Georgia, where Democrat Jon Ossoff leads Republican Karen Handel in the polls. And the polls have been so reliable lately.
If Ossoff wins, pundits are sure to declare it a major setback for Trump, and Republicans generally. But it is unwise to read too much into any special election.
Simply put, the voters are from different universes.
The small subset of voters that show up for a special election is not necessarily representative of the subset that will vote in the midterms, or the larger group that will vote in the 2020 presidential election. Analysts who say that a Democrat is running “10 percent ahead of Hillary Clinton” are comparing a handful of apples to an entire orchard.
Special elections can tell us something. Democrats are energized, and are pouring record millions into Ossoff’s campaign from around the country.
Special elections can also show party organization. Most voters will show up at the voting booth in November, but it takes a special effort to get them there in June or July.
Once the pundits are done chewing on the Georgia returns, they’ll turn their hungry eyes to the next morsel. That could mean national attention for the July 20 special election in Senate District 16, covering Bow, Candia, Dunbarton, Hooksett, and Manchester Wards 1, 2 and 12.
Tragically, Sen. Scott McGilvray died in March, just three months after being sworn in.
Former Republican Sen. David Boutin is looking to return to the seat he held from 2010 to 2016. Manchester Alderman Kevin Cavanaugh is the Democratic nominee.
The last time we had a Senate special election in District 16, Boutin, then a member of the House, beat fellow Rep. Jeff Goley, 3,375 to 2,686.
In November 2010, Boutin easily beat Democrat Kathleen Kelly, 11,678 to 8,500, for his first full term. This was a Republican wave year, in which the GOP took an astounding 19 Senate seats and nearly 300 House seats.
It was a much tighter contest in 2012. With Barack Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket, Boutin held off Kelly in a rematch, 13,876 to 13,480. Libertarian candidate Richard Tomasso took 921, which may have held down Boutin’s margin of victory, but I am always reluctant to assume voters who back third-party candidates would have shifted their votes had that choice not been on the ballot.
Republicans rode another midterm wave in 2014, which was another reminder that Barack Obama’s considerable political talents were never transferable. His eight years in office devastated Democratic ranks across the country. After surviving a primary challenge, Boutin trounced Maureen Manning 11,666 to 9,255.
When Boutin declined to run in 2016, NEA-NH president Scott McGilvray edged out Candia state Rep. Joe Duarte for the open seat, 15,118 to 14,503.
McGilvray ran up the score in Manchester, carrying Ward 1 by 700, Ward 2 by nearly 600, and Ward 12 by almost 300. That, and a narrow win in Bow, was enough to overcome Duarte’s landslide in his hometown, and small wins in Dunbarton and Hooksett.
Boutin needs to keep as close as possible in the three Manchester wards, and bring down the hammer in Hooksett. Cavanaugh needs to limit the damage in the towns, and run up the score in Manchester. In July, that means not just convincing people to vote for you, but to vote at all.
The 6,000 voters from the 2010 special election aren’t necessarily voting the same way as 20,000 voters in a midterm, or 30,000 in a presidential.
Can Boutin rally Republicans as easily as he did in his 2010 special election win, when the Tea Party movement had taxpayers fired up? Can Cavanaugh stand in as a proxy for Democrats looking to punish Trump’s party?
I think this election will have a lot more to do with the two candidates than with national trends. No matter the result, be careful not to draw too many conclusions about next year.
Special election results always predict the next general election, except when they don’t.
Grant Bosse is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News.