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Surge by Democrats Continues in ’07 Special Elections

by Hans Johnson
Contributing Editor, In These Times
President, Progressive Victory

Like an alibi that breaks under cross-examination, Republican leaders’ claims to be rebounding from their 2006 defeats clash with actual results of recent special elections for vacant state legislative seats.

Based on outcomes in both northern and southern states, Democrats are continuing a trend of winning special elections that began in 2005  [see http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/2551/ ] and foreshadowed the takeover of Congress and 10 state legislative chambers last November. Long outpaced by conservative counterparts, state Democratic parties and progressive interest groups are showing improved ability to target and turn out sympathetic voters.

In New York: Craig Johnson posted a breakthrough win for Democrats on Long Island, taking a previously GOP-held state Senate post with 54 percent in a Feb. 6 election. The victory was the first for a Democratic candidate in a race for a seat in the upper chamber from the island in two decades; it narrowed the GOP margin in the body to just 2 votes. The campaign also showcased intervention for each party’s candidate by Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. In another special election March 27, openly gay Democratic candidate Matthew Titone handily won a seat in the lower house of the legislature, the state Assembly, from the most conservative borough of New York, Staten Island.

In Alabama: Butch Taylor, a school board member near Huntsville, won a hard-fought special election March 6 for a vacant state House of Representatives seat, with 58 percent of the vote. GOP leaders in the state spent heavily and had boasted of being able to take the seat, but fell short.

In Mississippi: Joe C. Gardner, a school board member from Batesville, won a special election to the state House of Representatives in a race eyed by GOP Gov. Haley Barbour as a testing ground for his own reelection drive this year. Gardner, a Democrat, prevailed in a Feb. 27 runoff.

And in Tennessee, Democrat Beverly Marrero, a Memphis state representative, won the state Senate seat vacated by new Congressman Steve Cohen, who in turn claimed the post left open last year by Harold Ford. Marrero's victory, with 57 percent on March 14 in a race where state GOP leaders were itching for an upset, came amidst a shakeup in the state's upper chamber that has seen Republicans lose their one-vote majority. Mike Williams, a GOP moderate who chafed under what he called the "bitterness and divisiveness" of his right-wing compatriots, left the Republican caucus to become an independent the day after Marrero's win.

Republican candidates coast to coast are paying a price at the polls for the unpopularity of President Bush, whose approval ratings hover in the 30s. They are also feeling the consequences of a steady drift away from the GOP, based on both Iraq-related and domestic GOP miscues, as reflected by a recent Pew Research survey. Millions of Americans have relinquished their affiliation with Republicans over the past 5 years. At rough parity with Democrats in 2002, the GOP now faces a 15-percent deficit to Democrats in public identification.

Two special elections this summer for open Congressional seats may indicate whether Democratic performance at the polls remains strong. An election for the Georgia seat held until recently by the late Congressman Charlie Norwood (R) will be held June 19. And a contest to succeed Martin Meehan (D), the Massachusetts Democrat soon to take a post heading UMass Lowell, is likely to occur in late summer. Closely watched state elections will also occur this November in Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Virginia.