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To Special-Election Victors, a Short Stay in Congress

Rep. Bill Owens’ retirement announcement brought back a flood of special-election memories. But one thing in particular stood out to me. For all the national attention that competitive special elections receive, winning candidates’ time in Washington is often relatively short.

Owens’ tenure, when he completes his term, is long compared to some of his special-election contemporaries. He was elected in a November 2009 special election and will leave office in January 2015. And even though Owens was facing a competitive race this year, he chose to go out on his own terms.

Others weren’t so lucky in their electoral fate or their time in office:

  • Republican Bob Turner won New York’s 9th District (vacated by Anthony Weiner) in a September 2011 special election. Turner chose to run for the U.S. Senate in 2012 and lost in the primary.
  • Democrat Kathy Hochul won New York’s 26th District (vacated by Republican Chris Lee) in a May 2011 special election. Hochul was defeated for re-election in 2012 by Republican Chris Collins.
  • Republican Charles Djou won Hawaii’s 1st District (vacated by Democrat Neil Abercrombie) in a May 2010 special election. Djou was defeated for re-election in November 2010 by Democrat Colleen Hanabusa.
  • Democrat Mark Critz won Pennsylvania’s 12th District (vacated by Democrat Jack Murtha) in a May 2010 special election. Critz won re-election that November but lost in 2012 in a redrawn district.
  • Democrat Scott Murphy won New York’s 20th District (vacated by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand) in a March 2009 special election. Murphy was defeated for re-election in 2010 by Republican Chris Gibson.
  • Democrat Travis Childers won Mississippi’s 1st District (vacated by Republican Roger Wicker) in a May 2008 special election. Childers won re-election in November 2008 against the same opponent but lost in 2010 to Republican Alan Nunnelee.
  • Democrat Don Cazayoux won Louisiana’s 6th District (vacated by Republican Richard Baker) in a May 2008 special election. Cazayoux lost re-election a few months later to Republican Bill Cassidy.
  • Democrat Bill Foster won Illinois’ 14th District (vacated by Republican Dennis Hastert) in a March 2008 special election. Foster won re-election that November against the same opponent but lost in 2010 to Republican Randy Hultgren. Foster was elected to Congress again in 2012 in a redrawn district.

These examples aren’t terribly surprising but are a good reminder as to why special elections should be considered “special.” Victories in competitive special elections are often a result of circumstances at the time, not a result of political fundamentals.

So as we say goodbye to Owens, the winner of Florida’s 13th District special election has to be hoping that his or her victory will result in a longer tenure in Washington.

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