Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

The Special Calculus of Special Elections

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 26, 2009

feingold1Russ Feingold, so often the darling of the Goo-Go set, is either feeling very cynical this week or he’s just not thinking in terms of reality.

Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, is making noises about proposing a Constitutional Amendment to take away a Governor’s ability to make an appointment to fill out a vacated Senate seat and instead mandate that a special election be held. While that sounds like a very good, very “small-d” democratic solution to the problem of filling a vacant elected office, it is not; in fact it’s a boon to every political machine in the country.

Special elections hugely benefit the political machines and corrupt infrastructure that funds them. If money is the lifeblood of elected politics, then it is the actual corporeal structure of a special. By definition a special involves raising the maximum amount of cash in the minimum amount of time and nearly always favors a political incumbent with pre-made name recognition– people don’t come out of nowhere and win specials. Whoever wins the special is totally beholden to the machine that backed him, pretty much guaranteeing that you aren’t going to have some independent-minded free agent in the slot. This isn’t a secret to anyone who has ever spent a year or two in political life.

If a Governor makes an appointment, you get a similar political insider-type who is beholden to the Governor’s political interests. He or she may face stupid, onerous electoral conditions like New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand does, having to run twice in the next four years for a seat that normally runs on a six year electoral cycle; as a result she will be cutting deals like mad to finance those elections and to fend off what may be a developing coordinated challenge to herself and David Patterson from an unholy Bloomberg-Cuomo alliance. They also face a press that may be inherently hostile due to the unelected nature of the office.

So, if there are significant and equal downsides to each system that lead to very similar people gaining the office, then why would I be so shocked to see Russ Feingold, the alleged defender of good government and loud proponent of saving the public’s money from government folly, going to the absurd length of ammending the Constitution over a basically meaningless procedural change? Very simply because special elections are hugely expensive to the people of the state forced to hold them. A local special, to fill out a County or City office, places a huge financial burden on the municipality; a statewide election, as Feingold would mandate, is a financial kick in the shorts to the entire state for no practical gain over the current flawed system, which at least has the virtue of not causing a huge outpouring of taxpayer money to achieve the same result.

Appointment or Special Election; either way you wind up with a political insider who gets to run for re-election using the expensive (to you and me) tools of incumbency. Why would Russ Feingold decide to ding his political integrity over what is, in essence, a cheap press hit for him on the heels of the Caroline/Burris silliness? The simple answer is the cynicism of politics– he knows that people are outraged over the recent Senatorial follies but that they don’t actually know what they should be outraged against. He’s throwing them some red meat to the lions; he just isn’t telling them that the meat was cut from their own bodies.

From Feingold, that’s a shame.


2 Responses to “The Special Calculus of Special Elections”

  1. soundbytenation said

    Is that Adam Baldwin?

  2. Chancellor said


    You noted two potential drivers for Russ’ decision making – cynicism or not thinking in terms of reality. As I read the rest of your post, I’m believing you come down in favor of the former. Given Russ’ nature, I can understand how you’d come to that decision, but I really think he’s simply not thinking in terms of reality. Even when he was working at the state level, Feingold was always an advocate of “let the people decide”, even when it seemingly didn’t make a lot of sense to do so in terms of cost or significance.

    I happen to agree with you that this is a bad move, and I’m hoping he can’t get it done. But if it’s one thing I’ve learned about Russ Feingold over the years…well, let’s just say everyone said campaign finance reform wasn’t going to happen, either.

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