Georgia 6 Special: Unreasonably Great Expectations

by Stuart Rothenberg February 27, 2017 · 9:05 AM EST

The hype about the special election in Georgia’s 6th District has already begun even though the runoff, which will choose the next member of Congress, won’t be held until June 20.

The Daily 202, James Hohmann’s briefing from the Washington Post, went so far as to assert that the suburban Atlanta district “is the kind of district that Democrats will need to find a way to flip if they are going to seize the House majority in November 2018.” 

In fact, while Georgia’s 6th C.D. is worth watching and there are reasons for national Democrats to spend resources in the April open primary and the June runoff, the special election certainly is not a must-win test for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Even more important, Democrats don’t need to win this district to have a chance of netting at least 24 House seats in 2018.

For some badly needed perspective, I’d direct you to the May 2010 special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th District, which followed the death of John Murtha.

Expectations were sky-high for GOP businessman Tim Burns in that race against Democrat Mark Critz, a former Murtha aide.

Many observers, including the savviest campaign watchers, noted that the culturally conservative, blue-collar district, which went solidly for John McCain in 2008, was exactly “the kind of district” that Republicans needed to win in order to flip the House. 

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post described the race as “simply a must-win” for the GOP. 

Amy Walter, then editor of The Hotline, agreed. The special election, she said, “seems to be a must-win for Republicans. After all, if they can't win the only district in the country that voted for both John Kerry and John McCain, what does it say about their ability to win other GOP-tilting seats this fall?”  

"If the Republican doesn't [win], I think us pundits in Washington are going to have to revise our thinking about whether this is a wave election year for Republicans," said Marc Ambinder, then working with CBS News. 

Finally, veteran handicapper Charlie Cook summed up the race this way: “Republicans have no excuse to lose this race. The fundamentals of this district, including voters' attitudes towards Obama and Pelosi, are awful for Democrats.”  

But the special election results didn’t cooperate. Critz, who stressed his “pro-life” and “pro-gun” views during the campaign, beat Burns by almost eight points, a surprisingly convincing margin. The result, less than six months before the midterm elections, suggested that in spite of President Obama’s problems, strong Democratic nominees could successfully localize contests if they need to.

After the election, I wrote:

“…characterizing the GOP loss in that special election as evidence that Republicans can’t win the House is about as misguided as the pre-election assessments that the special was a “must win” for Republicans. 

Critz’s victory was very welcome news for Democrats and a good reminder that candidates, campaigns and district fundamentals matter. Conservative Democrats, at this point in the cycle, can still win in conservative Democratic districts, even if President Barack Obama isn’t popular.

But while the result certainly ought to be a dose of humility for Republicans who have talked nonsensically about gaining 50, 60 or even 70 seats in November, the result in Pennsylvania wasn’t a game-changer.” 

Later, I added this:

“As regular readers of this column know, election cycles develop over time, not overnight. In both 2006 and 2008, to say nothing of 1994, a number of races broke late, as voters turned their attention to the elections. I expect the same thing to happen this year, and that could change the arithmetic of the midterms.

There are dozens of reasons why the political environment might improve, or deteriorate, for Democrats between now and November….

Some of these developments would help boost Obama’s standing and give Democratic candidates a better chance to localize their contests, while others would undermine the administration’s standing and create an even bigger wave for political change that would overwhelm many Democrats who run strong re-election campaigns.”

In the November 2010 Critz-Burns rematch, Democrat Critz won yet again, though by less than two points. And yet, the GOP flipped 63 other districts, giving the party control of the House. 

What had once appeared to be impossible following the Republicans’ Pennsylvania special election defeat did occur when voters across the country came to see the midterms as a referendum on President Barack Obama’s first two years in office rather than merely a choice between two congressional nominees.

Pennsylvania’s 12th District was not, it turned out, a must-win special election for the GOP in 2010, and Georgia’s 6th District is not even close to a must-win special election for Democrats this year. 

A Democratic victory in the Republican-leaning district would be a surprise, and it certainly would – and should – frighten Republican strategists if it happens. But, as I noted a month ago, there are plenty of other ways for the DCCC to net 24 House seats without winning Georgia’s open 6th District. Plenty.