Bad news for Utah Democrats. Congressional seats rarely flip parties in special elections.
The Pew Research Center looked at the 130 House special elections since 1987. During that time, only 21 (16%) changed party control.
When House seats do flip in a special election, there’s often some unusual factor at play, such as a scandal or a split in the dominant party. That was emphatically the case in 2012 in Michigan’s 11th District, when incumbent Republican Rep. Thad McCotter was denied a spot on the primary ballot because nearly all the signatures on his nominating petitions were fake. McCotter resigned in the ensuing scandal, and there were two elections that November: a regular one for the incoming 113th Congress, and a special election for what was left of McCotter’s term in the 112th Congress. A Democrat won the special election, but a different Democrat lost the general, meaning the seat flipped from Republican to Democratic and back again in the space of two months.
Special elections haven’t attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, but what research there is generally finds them to be driven more by local than national political forces. The authors of a 1999 study of special elections, for instance, concluded that by and large, “special elections are as vulnerable to the constituency characteristics and candidate-specific attributes that structure other open-seat outcomes.” Even special elections that result in House seats flipping parties, they wrote, “can be viewed as the product of normal electoral circumstances and not referenda on the [presidential] administration.”
A recent UtahPolicy.com survey found Democrat Kathie Allen is trailing all three Republicans in the race to fill Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s seat, but only Provo Mayor John Curtis has a majority of support in our survey.