By Jim Ellis
May 1, 2018 — Just when we thought the number of special elections was lessening when Debbie Lesko won the AZ-8 election last week to replace resigned Arizona Rep. Trent Franks (R-Peoria), new vacancies are popping up.On Friday, Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Chadds Ford), who had previously announced his retirement for term’s end, abruptly resigned when learning the House Ethics Committee was going to launch an investigation into the severance payment awarded to one of his staff employees. The source of this particular recompense was the special taxpayer funded congressional account found to cover members’ special staff settlements.
Meehan also pledged to repay the $39,000 payment that is the investigation’s basis within the next 30 days. Now that Meehan has exited the House, the Ethics Committee no longer has jurisdiction. He joins former Texas Congressman Blake Farenthold (R-Corpus Christi) who resigned in early April also to avoid a congressional investigation.
Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Tulsa) resigned his seat in late April to accept his position in the Trump Administration as the new NASA Administrator. Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Allentown) says he will resign his seat at an unspecified date in early May, presumably because he will be accepting a position in the private sector. As we know, the late New York Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-Rochester) passed away on March 16.
All of these seats are now subject to the special election laws from their particular states. Regardless of state election and succession laws, all vacant seats in the House of Representatives must be filled by special election as opposed to gubernatorial appointment.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has already taken action. He scheduled the 27th District replacement election for June 30, with a run-off, if necessary, to be scheduled at a later time. The timing is unusual since the run-off election for the succeeding term is May 22. Gov. Abbott also made recent public statements that he is going to take action to attempt to force former Rep. Farenthold to pay the costs of the special election since he abruptly left the House to ostensibly avoid the Ethics Committee investigation that could have resulted in the members ordering him to re-pay the $84,000 taxpayer funded settlement to his former employee.
New York election law is a bit nebulous when it comes to filling special elections, and the governor appears to have wide authority in determining the replacement schedule. It is likely that party conventions will choose the special election nominees, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has yet to act in filling the late Rep. Slaughter’s seat and it is unclear as to when he may schedule the election.
In the Oklahoma situation, state election law dictates that the governor must schedule a special election within 30 days of the vacancy becoming official. There is an exception, however, when the vacancy occurs in an even-numbered year for a term that ends in the following year. Such is the case with the Bridenstine vacancy, so it is conceivable that this seat will remain unfilled for the rest of the year.
The Pennsylvania law that will affect both the Meehan and Dent vacancies is simultaneously clear and ill defined. The governor must call the replacement special election within 10 days of the vacancy becoming official but there does not appear to be a window governing when the election must be scheduled. Therefore, for both of these Keystone State vacancies the special election likely can be made to coincide with the regular election calendar.
The Pennsylvania situation is also tricky because of redistricting. Since the 7th and 15th Districts to which Reps. Meehan and Dent, respectively, were elected are very different in comparison with the new 5th and 7th Districts that most closely correspond to the previous map, the special elections must cover the former districts in order to fill the balance of the current term.
To re-cap, since there have been an unusually large number of US House vacancies in the current cycle, the following is the complete sequential 2017-18 list of departing House members:
1) KS-4 – Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Wichita) – Winner: Ron Estes (R)
2) CA-34 – Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-LA) – Winner: Jimmy Gomez (D)
3) MT-AL – Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-At Large) – Winner: Greg Gianforte (R)
4) GA-6 – Rep. Tom Price (R-Roswell) – Winner: Karen Handel (R)
5) SC-5 – Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-Rock Hill) – Winner: Ralph Norman (R)
6) UT-3 – Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Alpine) – Winner: John Curtis (R)
7) PA-18 – Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pittsburgh) – Winner: Conor Lamb (D)
8) AZ-8 – Rep. Trent Franks (R-Peoria) – Winner: Debbie Lesko (R)
9) OH-12 – Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Galena) – May 8 primary; Aug. 7 general
10) MI-13 – Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) – Aug. 7 primary; Nov. 6 general
11) NY-25 – Rep. Slaughter – unscheduled
12) TX-27 – Rep. Farenthold (R) – June 30 primary; unscheduled run-off
13) OK-1 – Rep. Bridenstine (R) – unscheduled
14) PA-7 – Rep. Meehan (R) – unscheduled
15) PA-15 – Rep. Dent (R) – unscheduled