The outcome of the June 20 special election in Georgia’s 6th District is crucial to both parties. If Jon Ossoff wins, it will be the first significant election since last fall in which Democrats have won a congressional seat previously held by a Republican. Although their candidates in Kansas and Montana gained substantially on the Democratic vote last November, the Republicans actually won both of those seats. It’s a lot easier to sell a victory than “close but no cigar.” So a win in Georgia would be a major boost to Democratic morale, candidate recruitment, and fundraising.
If Karen Handel wins, it will show that when the chips are down, the GOP knows how to mobilize its forces and hold the line; that the constant drama and negativity associated with the Trump White House have not yet swamped the Grand Old Party.
Ossoff has a razor-thin lead. The most recent poll, by WSB-TV/Landmark, gave Ossoff 49%, Handel 48%, a one-point margin for Ossoff. The RealClearPolitics average for the five most recent polls shows Ossoff with 47.6% and Handel with 45.6%, a two-point margin for the Democrat.
Obviously, the polls are within the margin of error, and very much subject to turn-out. Will anti-Trump Republicans return to their GOP voting habit? Will anti-Trump Democrats and independents be more motivated than the loyal GOPers, who stay with the party through thick and thin? Can Ossoff motivate African-American voters, who account for 13.4% of the district’s voting age population, and probably near-double that among Democrats?
Both sides have been raising major money, with national organizations pouring in millions. The Atlanta Journal & Constitution, in an analysis published at the end of May, said $21 million had been spent on the race since the April 18, when the runoff candidates were decided. Of that, Democrats have spent $11 million, Republicans $10 million. The AJC cites analysts who say final spending on the race will reach $40 million or more, making this the most costly congressional race in US history.
Factors that favor Democrat Ossoff:
* Ossoff, 30, is a fresh face. He also has some charisma as a bilingual documentary film producer. Handel, 55, is shop-worn; she has run for office six times, winning three and losing three. (The same trend is apparent in Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, where one-term ex-US Rep. Tom Perriello, 42, came out of nowhere and is running ahead – if only slightly – of establishment favorite Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, 57.)
* In special congressional elections held recently in Kansas and Montana, where Trump won by huge margins last November, the Republican vote fell off sharply. This suggests there will be some drop-off in Georgia 6, and only a slight drop, of three or four points, would support an Ossoff victory.
* “Ossoff’s ads have been better,” says one savvy Peach State political observer. “The Republican ads have been negative on Ossoff,” citing for example his support for the Iranian nuclear deal, designed to appeal to the district’s Jewish population, which is about 10% of the district’s voters. Jews, moreover, traditionally vote at a much higher rate than other groups. The strategy may or may not work. For starters, Ossoff is Jewish. And adds this observer, “I don’t think the voters are that interested in issues.”
* The Democrats have moved in a large contingent of paid and volunteer campaign workers to concentrate on turning out Ossoff’s vote. The GOP couldn’t get organized until after the April 18 “jungle” primary, in which a number of reasonably prominent Republicans were seeking to be the party nominee.
* The GOP’s strongest of the three counties in the district is Cobb County. In a recent local election, the Republican candidate won with 57% to 43%. If Ossoff garners 43% in Cobb, says our expert, he’s a likely winner.
* Finally, the national media focus during the next three weeks will be on the relationship between Russia and the Trump campaign, hardly a winning environment for Handel.
Handel does, however, have some factors in her favor. Says Chuck Clay, a former Republican State Chairman and once a state senator from Cobb County, “I still think the congressional district leans Republican. If the vote breaks along party lines, Handel will win.” He also notes that “the party faithful vote in special elections,” adding, “I would be mildly surprised in a district so overwhelmingly Republican if [Ossoff] won.”
Clay acknowledges, however, that the district “is not very Trump friendly. There was a lot of dissatisfaction and push-back over Trump.” Indeed, Trump carried the district last fall by a mere two percentage points, while at the same time, outgoing US Rep. Tom Price (R), now Secretary of Health and Human Services, won it by 23 points.
Finally, national Republican and business groups have been enthusiastic and generous toward Handel. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the Congressional Leadership Fund and the US Chamber of Commerce have all written big checks for Handel. The district’s long-time Republican organizations are mobilized and working for Handel’s election. And on the flip side of “shop-worn” are experience, name ID and lots of contacts, including with local officeholders. Stay tuned.