Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mr. Turner Goes to Washington (briefly)

Yesterday voters went to the polls in two special elections to fill vacant seats in the House of Representatives.  Republicans won both seats, one in disgraced Democrat Anthony Weiner's old district, NY-9, which is largely Democratic, though much more conservatively so than thought.  Political analyst Charlie Cook rates the district Partisan Voting Index a D +5, which means that the Democratic nominee for president in the last two presidential elections exceeded his party's national average (51.3%) by about 5 points.  Thus, the Democratic candidate for the House is assumed to have approximately a 5 point advantage in the district.  In practice, the advantage may be larger or smaller due to incumbency and a host of other variables.  The other seat up for grabs yesterday was NV-2, a seat vacated by Dean Heller when he was appointed to replace the scandal plagued Republican Senator John Ensign.  Cook rates the district R+5, largely on the strength of President Bush's 16 point win in the district in 2004.  President Obama and John McCain split the district in 2008, even though it remains a Republican stronghold.

The question is whether the outcome matters for 2012?  The answer is a resounding no, though Republicans and the media are sure to say otherwise (see here, and here).  The victory for Republicans is no more (or less) important than the Democratic takeover of NY-26, a district with a rating of R+6, last May, with one exception:  NY is slated to lose two house seats as a result of reapportionment from the 2010 Census.  One of those is likely to be NY-9, as it will likely be carved up to meet the reapportionment requirements established by the constitution.  Since the Democrats and Republicans share power in the redistricting process in NY, it would not surprise me to see NY-26 become the other casualty...thus effectively eliminating the party swap that occurred in NY this year.

Another reason that the results of many special elections don't matter is because they are notoriously low turnout affairs.  Few people pay attention to the contest and even fewer of those go to the polls.  NY-9 is a low turnout district as it is.  In 2010, Democrat Anthony Weiner coasted to reelection by 21 points over Bob Turner, who won the seat in the special election yesterday.  Yet, only 110,000 citizens bothered to vote in a district of 660,000 people (voting age population is about 450,000), which is less than 1 in 4 voters.  I expect turnout last night was even lower, though full results are not yet available.

In the end, the election doesn't matter.  NY-9 is a district that has been trending Republican since 2000 and will likely be sliced and diced during redistricting.  That means the newly elected Republican Bob Turner will have to run for reelection next year in a heavily Democratic district that will likely be far more liberal than the current 9th district.  Enjoy your time in Congress, Mr. Turner.  It probably won't last long. 

**NOTE: An earlier version of this post erroneously stated the Democrats took over NY-23 in January. It has been fixed to reflect the fact that it was NY-26 and the election was in May.**

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