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ANALYSIS | Do Special Elections Predict General Elections?

by | Jun 14, 2013 10:54am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Election 2013, Opinion, Ashford, Tolland, Willington

Republican Sam Belsito cruised to victory in Tuesday’s special election to fill the seat of Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, D-Tolland, who had resigned to take a job with the USDA. Republican state chairman Jerry Labriola was thrilled, crowing that there is “no doubt that tonight’s commanding GOP victory is referendum on Dan Malloy’s mishandling of the Connecticut economy,” in an email message to supporters, adding that the election was “a harbinger of things to come.”

A Courant editorial also suggested that Belsito’s win meant Democrats needed to sit up and take notice. That seems like quite a pronouncement to make over a special election where turnout hovered around 20 percent. Do special elections, which happen infrequently and often have very low turnout, really predict the way the wind will blow in the next general election?

To figure out whether special elections are a good place to take the temperature of the electorate, let’s take a look at what’s happened during previous cycles.

The two years running up to the 2012 general election actually had a large number of special elections. In early 2011, not long after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced his plans to fix a massive budget gap through a plan of “shared sacrifice,” which would include union concessions, cuts, and tax hikes, nine special elections were held, all of them in House or Senate districts represented by Democrats. Republicans only picked up two seats, despite the unpopularity of the governor’s plans.

A later special election in April resulted in Democrats holding a seat. In 2012, after then Rep. Tim O’Brien (D) won election as mayor of New Britain, Democrat Rick Lopes defeated two other candidates to win his House seat. All of this suggests an electorate willing to go with the status quo, and in fact in the 2012 general election the overall partisan balance of the General Assembly didn’t change at all. The one seat that Republicans had hoped would forecast a shift, a Senate seat in Meriden, was back in Democratic hands.

What about the 2010 cycle? Republicans did very well in the 2010 general election, picking up a seat in the Senate and a whopping 17 seats in the House. A total of 15 Democratic incumbents were defeated. However, the special elections held from 2009-10 don’t really forecast that. In 2009, there were two special elections, one to replace Rep. Kevin DelGobbo, R-Naugatuck, who left to be a DPUC commissioner, and another following the death of Rep. Faith McMahon, D-Bloomfield. Both seats remained with the parties that had held them before the election.

In 2010, a special election was called to replace Rep. John Harkins, R-Stratford, who had recently become mayor of Stratford. Laura Hoydick, another Republican, picked up the seat. It’s a small sample size, true, but there’s little here to indicate the Republican wave on the horizon.

Sometimes special elections seem to swim against the current. During the two years prior to the 2008 elections, Republicans did very well, even managing to flip a Senate seat in Bridgeport by a shockingly large margin. But when the general election rolled around, they were swamped by the Democratic tide, and the Bridgeport seat was back in Democratic hands.

Here’s the thing about special elections: they’re weird. Turnout is low — sometimes as low as 10-15 percent — and they often say more about the state of local politics and local get-out-the-vote operations than they do about bigger trends. The reason is that the electorate for a special election is usually very, very different from that of a general election, which is why it’s possible to have bonkers results like a Bridgeport senate seat going Republican by 20+ points.

But does this special election matter? It’s hard to say. The seat has a definite Democratic history; it was for a time represented by current Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, and it’s possible to see it as a sign of voter frustration in the many, many supposedly “safe” districts Democrats take for granted. And yet, in 2010 Hurlburt won re-election by only a few hundred votes, while Tolland and Willington went for Tom Foley. So a Republican win isn’t completely unprecedented. It’s also possible to see this as local politics in action. Belsito is a well-known member of the Tolland town council, while his opponent hailed from tiny Ashford.

Therefore, take the result with a grain of salt. It would be foolish for Democrats to ignore this result entirely. But it might be just as foolish to believe that it’s a sign of impending doom.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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(7) Archived Comments

posted by: ... | June 14, 2013  11:45pm


What is important to note here are two things: 1) The Democratic Convention for a nominee had two other candidates before the third emerged (as the JI mentioned a while back): Rick Field of Tolland and Susan Eastwood of Ashford. There was a clear deadlock between the two with neither side budging. Apparently Mr. Horn was a ‘compromise candidate’. No matter the character/experience of the compromise candidate, a compromise candidate fro the smallest town in a district is simply that. Little was probably known of him outside of Ashford and parts of Willington. The largest voting bloc (Tolland) knew nothing about him, so why would any of those residents be excited or interested in someone they don’t know, or bother voting at all? And it’s certain those who supported the original two were upset they had to resort to a third. And so this is where things get interesting.

2) The results in Willington and Ashford were appallingly low. The Democratic candidate only won his hometown by 44 votes. That’s right, Mr. Horn was in a near-tie with his opponent in his own town of Ashford where there was roughly 25% turnout. This borders on conspiracy, but how much effort did Susan Eastwood ( a perpetual opponent for State Sen. Tony Guglielmo who is well known in the Town and in the Senate District) even put into supporting her fellow Ashford candidate and get out the vote for him?

The same goes for Willington. Mr. Horn garnered 181 votes in Willington to the over 500 for Belsito. Was there any effort by DTC in Willington to even try and get people to vote, especially when just 7 months ago 1,600 people supported the last state rep? Even if that last election was presidential, 20-25% of that bloc would have been strong Democrats and it still would have been double what Mr. Horn got on election day.

It’s a lot of speculation of course. But this seems like a race that was Mr. Belsito’s to loose going out of the gates, and he apparently hammered down on the conservative rhetoric to fire up his base as much as Mr. Horn kept calm and excited nobody to get out for him except for those who were actively aware of the election. Roughly 2,300 voters decided the representation of 25,000 residents, or 15,00 to 20,000 thousand voting-age adults.

posted by: William Jenkins | June 16, 2013  8:53am

As usual, your facts are wrong.  Republicans only picked up 14 seats in the 2010 general election, going from 37 to 51 seats in the House.  Republicans won one special election in 2011 in a seat that was previously held by a Democrat (101st House) which brought their total to 52.  Bryan Hurburt did not take a job with the “USDA.”

All of the special elections in 2011 were from Democrats leaving their seats to take positions in the Malloy administration and all but the 101st House were safe Democratic seats.  It is truly amazing that a Republican won the 13th State Senate seat in a special election in 2011 and it should be no surprise that the Republicans didn’t hold it in 2012.  However, what does make a statement is that Len Suzio only lost by a few votes in the face of the Obama wave of 2012 in what is one of the most Democratic State Senate seats in the entire state.

No one should be surprised when city Legislative seats in New Britain, Stamford and Bridgeport remain in Democratic hands in special elections.

The 53rd has been competitive for Republicans in the past. Nancy Wyman only won reelection over Kathy Bach in 1992 by 35 votes and in the open seat in 1994, Michael Cardin only defeated Kathy Bach by 6 votes.  Rob Arute only lost to Bryan Hurlburt in 2010 by 235 votes.

Other editorials keep calling the 53rd “Nancy Wyman’s seat” which is strange. Wyman only won it four times and the last time only by 35 votes.  Bryan Hurlburt won it four times as well and always by more than 35 votes.  On the other hand, Michael Cardin won it six times, three times without opposition.  If you’re going to give the people’s seat a name, it ought to be “Michael Cardin’s seat.”

posted by: CT Jim | June 16, 2013  9:12am

Nobody followed or cared about this race and when Mr Horn proclaimed himself a conservative democrat most democrats Im sure stayed home. Scott Brown thought his special
election was turning Massachusetts red. How’d that work out. Let the gun nut enjoy his one session and see if the dems can stop fighting up there and we’ll see. But sea change? lol

posted by: Christine Stuart | June 16, 2013  10:08pm

Christine Stuart

Sorry Bill but the Farm Service Agency is part of the USDA

posted by: Christine Stuart | June 16, 2013  10:16pm

Christine Stuart

Also it was 17 seats Republicans picked up in 2010. Susan is counting the two special elections that year, I believe. It was 15 in the General Election, then two in special elections.

posted by: Susan Bigelow | June 17, 2013  6:41pm

Yes, Christine is correct, I was counting the change from 2008 to 2010. Apologies if that wasn’t clear.

posted by: William Jenkins | June 18, 2013  11:43pm

The Republicans had 37 seats in the House prior to the 2010 election.  That’s also how many they had after the 2008 election.  They had a net gain of 14 after the 2010 election (not 17) bringing them to 51 then won one more in a special election (not 2) in the 101st in 2011 bringing them to 52.  How is it that you’re both coming up with 17?

Maybe you two are counting new Republicans and there might have been a total of 17 freshmen House Republicans in the 2011 General Assembly but a Republican replacing a retiring Republican is not “picking up” a seat, nor is a Republican winning a seat formerly held by a Republican in a special election considered “picking up a seat.”

About the Republicans Susan said the “2010 general election picking up…17 seats in the House” and that is simply not true.

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