This Upcoming Special Election Could Have a Huge Impact

February 27th 2017

Mike Rothschild

As Democrats put the pieces back together from Hillary Clinton's loss to President Donald Trump, small glimmers of hope are beginning to appear. The results of a special election in Delaware, and another coming up on Tuesday in Connecticut represent more than a lifeline for a beleaguered party. They're an important barrier to stopping what could be a devastating rewrite of the U.S. Constitution.

Special elections are common after a national vote, to fill vacancies left by elected officials who went on to new offices. On Feb. 25, Delaware held a special election to replace a Democratic state senator, a vacancy that left the state senate a 10-10 split. So the contest between Democrat Stephanie Hansen and Republican John Marino represented a chance for Republicans to take control of the state legislature.

Rising to meet the high stakes, Democrats raised over $1 million, ten times what's normally spent on state senate elections, and Hansen won the seat by 18 points - as opposed to a 2 point Democratic win in 2014.

Another special election is coming on Feb. 28 in Connecticut, and like Delaware, the state senate is up for grabs. The 2016 election left the body split between both parties with two seats left to fill, each in a heavily partisan district. If Republicans win both seats, they'll take control of the state senate.

While state legislature special elections usually pass unheeded, these have wide-ranging implications. Both races represented a Republican opportunity to break up a "trifecta" - when one party controls both houses of a state legislature and the governor's seat. Republicans have 25 trifectas, while Democrats have only six, including Delaware and Connecticut.

But beyond that, it takes two-thirds of state legislatures to call for a Convention to propose new amendments to the Constitution. Article V allows for this, reading that the "Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States" can vote to "call a Convention for proposing Amendments."

Republicans hold the combined legislatures of 33 states, and with one more, they'll have the votes needed to call for what's been called a "convention of the states." Both liberal and conservative groups have called for an Article V convention to do everything from drastically curtail the power of the federal government to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling.

The uncertainty behind a "convention of the states" is great. There's no legal or constitutional guidance for how it would work, how delegates would be chosen, or long it would last, or what powers it would have. Many scholars fear an Article V convention could run amuck and be used to entirely rewrite the Constitution or pass amendments that discriminate against individual groups.

An entirely new government could emerge from such a "runaway convention," and it could look very different from the current one.

Whatever amendments, such a convention proposes would still need to be ratified by three-quarters of the states, but given the number of state legislature seats Democrats have lost in the last decade, Republicans taking control of the 38 states they'd need is not out of the question.

Regardless of what happens in Connecticut on Tuesday, this is still a remote possibility. The state Houses in both Connecticut and Delaware are still controlled by Democrats, so it's several years before an Article V convention becomes more than a theory. But every state legislature that flips Republican makes it more and more realistic.