Five Not-So-Special Lessons From Tucson

June 14, 2012

There’s a reason they’re called “special” elections.

But Tuesday’s contest to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was particularly unique. Local sympathies worked against Republican nominee Jesse Kelly, who lost to Rep.-elect Ron Barber (D) by 7 points. Barber, along with Giffords, was shot in a Tucson supermarket parking lot in January 2011.

But in other ways, the Arizona race wasn’t all that special. Democrats and Republicans invested six figures in the district’s single media market and pushed national messages on television, and both parties anticipated massive third-party spending and minimal turnout.

Most importantly, Barber’s victory only cements this already-certain fact: House Democrats are better at winning special elections than Republicans. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has claimed victory in 12 out of the 14 most competitive special elections for the House since 2006.

Here are Roll Call’s lessons learned from Tucson and beyond:

1. Special Elections Aren’t Always Worth the Investment

It’s easy to say in hindsight that the National Republican Congressional Committee could have saved $878,000 by staying out of the Arizona race. But the initial poll numbers showed it could compete there.

Truth be told, both parties have a track record of spending heavily in recent special elections when the results showed it probably wasn’t necessary.

As recently as January, the DCCC dumped $1.3 million in the special election to replace former Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.). Its candidate, Suzanne Bonamici, won by a 14-point margin.

And last September in Nevada, the NRCC spent $600,000 to boost its candidate in the special election for now-Sen. Dean Heller’s (R) seat. Mark Amodei, the GOP nominee, won by a whopping 22 points.

This cycle, the House campaign committees have spent a combined $4.46 million on six special elections. Each party flipped control of one seat, canceling out any gains.

The parties would rather be safe than sorry. But is all that money really worth the ounce of momentum received from a predictable special election victory? Maybe not every time.

2. Buy Airtime Early

Congressional committees and outside groups are reserving fall airtime as early as possible for good reason. There’s little risk and big reward.

Ad buyers get cheaper rates and better placement if they reserve early. By law, candidates will get airtime at a good rate in the weeks leading up to an election. If a station doesn’t have enough airtime, often the last buyer to reserve it is the first to have their spot taken down to free up airtime.

Most importantly, buyers can cancel purchases and move buys with minimal penalties until close to the air date. And sometimes, heavy spending will scare the competition out of the race.

3. Candidates Matter

In a wave election, almost any aspiring Congressional candidate can win a House seat under the right circumstances. Not so much in special elections.

The NRCC’s poor special election track record is littered with lackluster candidates — many of whom the committee had no choice in selecting. New York GOP leaders picked candidates such as former state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava in New York’s 23rd district and former state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin in New York’s 26th district. Dairy magnate Jim Oberweis spent his way to the GOP nomination in Illinois’ 14th district in the 2008 race to replace former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R).

And remember David Weprin, the Democratic nominee in the special election for former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D) seat? It was Democrats’ biggest special election blunder of the past six years, and Weprin’s lackluster candidacy played a big part in it.

Republicans caution that Kelly ran a better campaign in the special than he did in 2010, but it still wasn’t enough. Already there are rumblings among local Republicans about backing retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally over Kelly in the August primary that will decide who will take on Barber in November.

4. Early Voting Matters More

The one big takeaway from Arizona is this: Campaigns need robust early voting drives in special elections — and in all elections. By the time the polls opened Tuesday, three-quarters of the votes were already cast via early ballots in the 8th district race, according to an initial tabulation from the Arizona secretary of state’s office.

In 2010, Kelly got more votes than Giffords on Election Day. But he lost the early voting battle to the then-Congresswoman, 
who won by 4,000 votes when all the ballots were counted.

This time around, Kelly lost the early vote count by 14,056 ballots, according to the same initial figures. At the end of the day, Barber won the race by 13,011 votes.

5. Outside Groups Matter the Most

Republicans will win the outside spending war after Labor Day. But those same groups lost the battle in Arizona.

It’s not because the GOP groups spent less than House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC that invested heavily in the race. Online records show outside groups on either side spent about $460,000 each on the race.

The uncoordinated orchestration between the DCCC and House Majority PAC in the Tucson media market was downright artful.

After the special election primary on April 17, the DCCC bought airtime for two weeks starting April 26, plus the last two weeks leading up to the election. The committee’s buy left an obvious three-week hole that House Majority PAC subsequently filled with a 60-second spot.

The super PAC’s ad used damaging footage of Kelly quotes from his 2010 run. The spot also coincided with the first weeks of early voting.

But Republicans said it was the final House Majority PAC spot that did the most damage to Kelly and his prospects. Like its precursors, this spot also featured footage of Kelly from his 2010 race against Giffords.

“Now she stands there, with that smile, and pretends to be some kind of hometown hero,” Kelly said in the spot. “She’s a hero of nothing.”

Game over.

Correction: June 14, 2012

An earlier version of the article misstated the party affiliation for former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).