Georgia 6: Runoff a Challenge for Both Parties

Stuart Rothenberg April 20, 2017 · 8:55 AM EDT

Once again, a special election received more attention than it deserved.

No, I’m not saying that it didn’t matter or that the results can’t tell us something about Donald Trump and the 2018 midterm elections. But the primary in Georgia’s 6th District and the subsequent special election certainly aren’t anything close to the final word about 2018, no matter who wins.

And who wins is very much in doubt.

The runoff boils down to a few questions. First, can Karen Handel unify Republican voters, most of whom did not vote for her? They didn’t vote for her even though she is a former chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners and a former Georgia Secretary of State – and she ran, unsuccessfully, in Republican primaries for governor in 2010 and the Senate four years later.

In other words, Handel is not exactly unknown in GOP circles. Yet, about six in ten GOP voters cast their ballots for a different Republican. How many of those voters who supported a different Republican will stay home in June or even vote for Democrat Jon Ossoff?

Second, can Handel and her GOP allies discredit Ossoff more than they already have? In other words, can they make the runoff a referendum on Ossoff, a youthful lightweight, rather than on President Donald Trump? Can they make the runoff entirely about party in a district that is normally reliably Republican?

And third, can Ossoff turn out Democrats yet again, keeping the focus of the election on Trump? He may also need to squeeze out a few more Republican votes.

One thing is clear: the president is a drag on the GOP right now. That’s the only way you can read the Democratic performance in the Kansas’ 4th District special election when combined with Ossoff’s 48.1 percent performance on Tuesday.

President Barack Obama got 37.5 percent of the vote in Georgia’s 6th District in 2012, roughly the same percentage that the Democratic congressional nominee got against then-Rep. Tom Price 2016. Ossoff’s showing was some 10 points higher, and in line with Hillary Clinton’s showing in the district. 

As most have already noted, Georgia 6, a suburban, very well-educated district, is very Republican but not very pro-Trump. Tuesday’s results show that has not changed.

Trump has not broadened his appeal, in this district at least, since November. But, there is also no evidence of wholesale defections by Republican voters in Georgia 6 who supported Trump in November. At least they have not yet used the special election as an opportunity to express their displeasure with him.

That leads to an interesting question: Is Georgia 6 simply too Republican a district for Ossoff – or any Democrat – to win, except under the most favorable conditions? Or, would a stronger Democratic nominee – someone with an interesting life story and who is able to talk substance rather than slogans – do better than Ossoff?

A Republican friend of mine argued recently that if the Democrats can’t win in Georgia 6, they can’t take back the House. 

Really? I’m not convinced of that. Not at all. There are 23 Republican House members sitting in districts carried by Hillary Clinton last year. Those districts will be ground zero next year in the fight for the House, when Democrats will need to add two dozen seats to win back the House. 

And, as I noted in a column a couple of months ago, Republicans lost a special election in western Pennsylvania in May of 2010 but went on to gain 63 House seats that November. How could that happen? 

I suspect that midterm elections help create a national dynamic that doesn’t quite occur during a single special election. With the whole country voting and the media drumbeat, it is easier for the out-party to make more races into referenda on the sitting president. 

Moreover, midterms turn out some swing voters (more casual voters who don’t vote in a special election), and those voters, who are by definition less partisan, tend to vote on mood – and against the sitting president if they are disappointed in him.

So, what will happen in June and then a year and a half later, in November of 2018?

Well, the runoff looks too close to call, and the midterms are simply too far off to call.

If Trump is successful over the next year and a half, some of the suburban Republicans, like those in Georgia’s 6th C.D., who find him too vulgar for their tastes, may warm to him.

On the other hand, if things go poorly, in either domestic or foreign policy, some voters who supported him and who still think it’s too early to judge his success, may decide that the midterms are a good opportunity to send a message of dissatisfaction to the White House.

*The original version of this column misstated when Republicans gained Pennsylvania's 12th District.