By Jim Ellis
April 2, 2020 — With the COVID-19 virus playing havoc with virtually every aspect of American life, including elections, how are the House vacant seats being affected?
North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows (R-Skyland/Buncombe County) resigned from Congress Monday night to become White House Chief of Staff, which brings the total number of vacancies to a half-dozen. Special elections are scheduled in four of those, with three to be decided on or before May 12.
Originally, the special elections in Maryland and New York were supposed to be the first to go to the voters, but the COVID-19 precautions changed the date of the New York election and the voting system in Maryland. Former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who easily won the crowded Democratic primary on Feb. 7, will win the special general on April 28 but the process now becomes all-mail. The Republican nominee is event planner Ken Klacik, but this Baltimore city district and surrounding area will easily remain in Democratic hands. We can expect Mfume to break 75 percent of the vote.
The former congressman was elected to five terms in the House beginning with the 1986 election. He resigned to become president and CEO of the NAACP in 1996. Mfume served in that position until running unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2006, losing the Democratic primary to then-congressman, Ben Cardin. Then-state Delegate Elijah Cummings replaced Mfume in the House at that time and served until his death in October. Now, ironically, Mfume returns to replace the late Rep. Cummings.
California’s 25th District, which begins in the state’s Simi Valley and stretches to the Palmdale area, potentially features the hottest of the current special elections. Rep. Katie Hill (D) resigned the seat because of a sexual scandal leading to a multi-candidate concurrent special and regular election.
Democratic state Assemblywoman Christy Smith topped the field on March 3, and she advances to the special election runoff on May 12 with Iraq War fighter pilot Mike Garcia (R). The latter individual placed ahead of, and eliminated, former US Rep. Steve Knight (R) who was attempting a political comeback after losing to Hill in 2018. Polling is projecting a tight finish. Regardless of what happens on May 12, both Smith and Garcia are advancing to the regular general election to battle for the full term beginning in 2021. The May 12 winner is immediately sworn into the House and serves the remaining part of the current congressional session.
There was speculation that Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) could move the special general as a COVID-19 precaution, but he instead changed the voting system to all-mail. Therefore, this special vote continues as originally scheduled.
The other May 12 special election is also continuing as scheduled with no alterations. Wisconsin’s 7th District was left open when five-term Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wausau) resigned for family reasons. The special primary was held on Feb. 18 and advancing to the special general were Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) and Wausau School Board member Tricia Zunker (D).
The district’s electorate has become reliably Republican, so Sen. Tiffany, after defeating disabled Afghanistan War veteran and former congressional aide Jason Church in the Republican primary, became a heavy favorite to win the seat in May. The regular cycle primary is scheduled for Aug. 11 at which time a new group of candidates will battle the eventual special election winner. The August winners will then advance to the regular election to compete for the full two-year term in November.
The New York special election in District 27 to replace former Rep. Chris Collins (R-Clarence/Batavia) who resigned after pleading guilty to insider trading was originally scheduled for April 28, on the same ballot with the New York presidential primary. Now, these elections have been moved to run concurrently with the regular New York primary on June 23.
The two major parties met in caucus to nominate special election candidates. The Republicans settled on Buffalo area state Sen. Chris Jacobs, while the Democrats re-nominated their 2018 candidate, local town Supervisor Nate McMurray who held Collins to a one-point victory in 2018.
The special election figures to be close, and both men will also be running for nomination for the full term on that same day. Sen. Jacobs may have a tough regular primary, however, as several of the candidates the committee bypassed to choose him as the special election nominee are running in the regular election. Therefore, because of the special being moved, Sen. Jacobs is in the unique position of being on the ballot in two separate competitive elections for the same office but against different opponents.
The remaining two specials have not been scheduled. California Gov. Newsom says he will not schedule an election to replace resigned Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine/San Diego County) who pled guilty to federal campaign finance violations. This means the state’s 50th District won’t be filled until January. With the regular primary being completed on March 3, former US Rep. Darrell Issa (R) and 2018 candidate finalist Ammar Campa-Najjar (D) advanced to the November general election.
With Meadows now officially resigned, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) must decide if he will schedule a special election to replace him for the balance of this term, or let the seat remain vacant until the next Congress. With the Republican regular election candidates involved in a runoff election on June 23 the situation becomes more complicated. It remains to be seen what Gov. Cooper decides.