Friday, February 6, 2009
WARNING! SERIOUS POLITICAL WONKERY ALERT!
I've already done a discussion about what this week's special election in District 2 says about the city's political direction. But it seems like there's a possibility Georgia Blotzer, who lost to Theresa Smith in that contest, may take another shot in the primary. Certainly some bloggers are hoping so. And as the Pittsburgh Comet's Bram has noted in a couple places, the fact that Smith had the Democratic endorsement should be less of a factor in the May primary. (In the special, only the endorsed Democrat can run as the Democrat; everyone else has to run as independents.) No doubt that's something Blotzer is weighing.
So I got curious: What's the track record of city councilors who win in a special election ... and have to run again in a regular primary a few months later?
There's not a ton of evidence here, but if you're a Blotzer partisan, the track record is not encouraging.
In a 2001 special election for district 4, for example, Jim Motznik won a special election in February, winning less than half the vote in a 4-person field. (Motznik was NOT the endorsed Democrat in that race -- Anthony Coghill was.) In the regular primary that spring, he won with 60 percent of the vote. This time around, he had the endorsement AND the power of (short-lived) incumbency, and he improved on his special-election performance.
In February of 2003, Lenny Bodack won with, like, a quarter of the vote. This was a six-person race, with Bodack -- the endorsed Democrat -- narrowly besting Mitch Kates and Nancy Noszka. A couple months later in the May primary, Bodack won a second time, again squeezing out a narrow victory facing only Kates and Noszka.
What does this tell us? For one thing, it shows that Lenny Bodack was, from the outset, one of the weakest candidates to hold a council seat in recent memory. But we already knew that. Taken together, though, the two races suggest the difficulty of reversing a special election result only a few months later.
In fact, the 2001 race should be the more worrisome precedent for Bltozer -- and for anyone who thinks the party endorsement was the decisive reason for Smith's win. In district 4, Motznik didn't even get the endorsement for the special. Yet he was able to win and increase his margin just a few months later.
To the best of my knowledge and recollection, those are the only council races in the past decade where a special election in the winter was followed by a regular primary in the spring. Two races isn't a lot of evidence to go on, since there are so many unique factors at work in any race. Bodack's wet-rag campaigning style, for example.
So let's consider a different case: the 2006-7 campaigns for city council district 3. In May 2006, Jeff Koch won a special election -- as the endorsed Dem in a field of 8 -- to fill out the remainder of Gene Ricciardi's term. A year later, Bruce Kraus toppled Koch in a regular election, winning by 10 points.
That precedent is a bit more hopeful for Blotzerians. But it may be the exception that proves the rule. Koch only narrowly beat Kraus the first time around -- had it not been for spoiler Bruce Krane peeling off a couple hundred votes in the South Side Flats, Kraus could have won. And a whole year had elapsed between the two races ... plenty of time for Koch to pile up a track record, and for voters to decide whether he was the guy they wanted. Obviously, the answer was "no."
By contrast, Blotzer, got trounced by a two-to-one margin this week. And as others have observed, there's little sign she wore out a lot of shoe leather reaching out to the district. Seems a little late to be starting now. And the one advantage Blotzer did have -- a clear edge in fundraising at the start of the campaign -- will likely evaporate. Smith, as the incumbent, can count on some extra support that hasn't shown up in finance reports so far.
And when Smith next goes before the voters, she'll have none of the disadvantages that sometimes go with incumbency. Unlike, say, Jeff Koch, she'll only have been in office a couple months when she goes before voters a second time. She'll almost certainly have the endorsement again, which means voters will have to have a damn good reason to oppose her. It's hard to imagine that happening when Smith won't have done much more than measure the drapes in office.
Coming out of the special election, Smith looks much stronger than Bodack or Koch did. I try not to make predictions, but I don't see much reason to think Blotzer will be able to turn this around in May.