From Old Dominion to the Nutmeg State: Looking at the First Special Elections of 2017

After the dust settled in November, Donald Trump emerged victorious, seemingly clutching the head of the old political order between in his tiny, orange hands. President Trump’s loss of the popular vote by almost three million votes struck a nerve for much of the American populace. Over 1 percent of the American population, between three and four million people, marched against him the day following his inauguration in the largest protest the United States has ever seen. But marching, it appears, isn’t enough. People want to fight back, and elections provide a forum for all people to voice their opinions.

Most people don’t know that the throughout the United States there are elections on average every few weeks. But in a country where barely 60 percent of people vote in quadrennial presidential election years, these elections, normally special or local elections, often operate on tiny budgets and attract under 30 percent voter turnout. Incumbents and, more importantly, incumbent parties, almost always keep their seats. Only one year ago, in my hometown of Greenwich, CT, a town carried by the 2016 Democratic candidates for House, Senate, and president, First Selectman Peter Tesei, a Republican, won reelection in the local elections 74-25 with voter turnout of less than 16 percent.

After the stunning election results in November, this country might be poised for a change in election participation. Those 2.9 million voters who feel like their votes were not counted, as well as the other sixty-three plus million Clinton voters, are fighting back in local and special elections countrywide, hardly ever in their own districts. As every day passes, that old adage, “All politics is local,” moves further and further from the truth.

Cheryl Turpin was the Democratic candidate in one of the first races of 2017, a race for Virginia’s Eighty-Fifth House of Delegates District. An AP Environmental Science teacher, she ran against local sheriff Rocky Holcomb for the seat vacated by Scott Taylor upon his election to Virginia’s Second Congressional District. Turpin worked hard to tap into the Democratic and liberal furor nationwide to help her campaign in the Eighty-Fifth, a reliably Republican district.

Phone banks popped up, not just in Virginia Beach, but from San Francisco to Chicago. Lena Dunham, a prominent, if controversial, public activist, ran a piece on her website about the special election. As Turpin wrote in a letter to the Daily Kos, “Despite a historic ice storm the weekend before election day, our team had knocked on 10,000 doors and made 50,000 phone calls — and we had gone from long-shot to toss-up.”

Unfortunately for Team Blue, a toss-up is not a victory: Cheryl Turpin lost the special election 53-47. But she has not given up hope; this was the closest margin in the Eighty-Fifth in many years. She has already announced her candidacy for the seat again in 2017, setting up what will surely be an interesting rematch against Holcomb.

Another similar election took place in late February, in Connecticut’s Thirty-Second State Senate district. Four-term Republican state senator Rob Kane retired, kicking off a race between his former Democratic opponent Greg Cava and state representative Eric Berthel. Kane had beaten Cava 66-34 in the November election, but people were mad. “Every person we spoke to said that the Thirty-Second had never seen a campaign like this one,” AJ Schrag, Cava’s special election campaign manager told the Gate. Constituents were willing to volunteer, making “phone call after phone call and knocking on countless doors.”

“Senator Chris Murphy was instrumental in helping educate people about the importance of this election,” Schrag continued. And the election was important: after the 2016 election, the Connecticut state senate stood tied, 17-17, with two vacancies. The first vacancy was in the heavily Democratic Second District, and the Thirty-Second was the other. Murphy, US congresswoman Elizabeth Esty, state comptroller Kevin Lembo, and state senate majority leader Bob Duff all campaigned for Cava in this district that Donald Trump had carried 57-43. In the end, just as with Turpin, Cava lost the election 54-44. That is not a bad turnaround from a 66-34 loss only three months beforehand, especially in a Trump district.

So what do these two elections tell us about Democrats in Trump’s America? Are all Democrats bound to lose? Does Jon Ossoff, the Democrat challenger to fill the Congressional seat vacated by new HHS secretary Tom Price, stand a chance, or will he follow in the paths of Turpin and Cava: to lose, but to lose by less? Or will the massive outpouring of support for him make his story end as Stephanie Hansen’s did when she was elected to the Delaware state senate in a February special election?

Though all politics may now be national, that doesn’t mean that every race is the same. It never will. All we know from the stories of Virginia’s Eighty-Fifth House and Connecticut’s Thirty-Second Senate districts is that, nationwide, Democrats are ready and willing to donate money to candidates they have never heard of. Stephanie Hansen raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Jon Ossoff has raised a staggering $8.3 million from almost two hundred thousand donors. Platforms like flippable can bring together liberals, ensconced in their cities and blue states, and Democratic candidates from New York to Montana. So keep your eyes on the special elections, but, more than that, keep your eyes on 2018. It’s too early to know if a storm is brewing, but some clouds are starting to appear.

Editors’ Note: the author volunteered for both the Turpin and Cava campaigns.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

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