Brookhaven, GA, April 19, 2017 – by Edward Lewis for The Post – Depending on your perspective, Tuesday’s special election to fill the vacant seat of current HHS Secretary Tom Price in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District was many things. To some, Democratic upstart Jon Ossoff’s 48.10% of the vote was a strong showing, indicative of shifting demographics and an ongoing rebuke of President Donald Trump.
To other perhaps more conservatively inclined observers, Mr. Ossoff’s failure to break the 50% threshold and win outright represented a victory for Georgia Republicans, despite splitting the GOP ticket ten ways and an unprecedented influx of out-of-state donations for the leading Democratic contender.
But no matter how you slice it now, the Sixth is headed for a June 20th runoff, and several key questions remain unanswered.
Can the Democratic Ground (and Money) Game Keep Up?
Despite rising from relative obscurity, the 30-year-old former congressional aide and documentary filmmaker quickly established a formidable campaign operation—one that had Georgia Republicans hedging their bets leading into Tuesday’s voting.
Starting from the premise of “Make Donald Trump Furious” and transitioning into a centrist, yet somewhat unrefined message around traditional conservative touchstones like cutting wasteful spending and national security, Mr. Ossoff raised $8.3 million in the first quarter of 2017; a fundraising number more commonly found in US Senate races, not in Democratic war chests in historically blood-red congressional districts.
Armed with these substantial resources, the Ossoff campaign put together one of the most sophisticated ground games in recent memory, capturing national attention and raising the specter of an outright win on Election Day. Mr. Ossoff came close, outperforming 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by 1.4 points despite bleeding out another 0.8 points to four Democratic also-rans along the way.
But close doesn’t earn you a seat in the United States House of Representatives, either.
In order to claim victory in June’s run-off, Ossoff will likely need every one of those 93,911 Democratic votes and then some. While special election turnout is notoriously difficult to predict, the presumed consolidation of Republican support behind former Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel will afford the Ossoff campaign minimal room for error.
The good news for Ossoff fans? There are at least 32,527 more Democratic votes to go and get, the difference between Ossoff’s performance on Tuesday and 2016 Democratic nominee Rodney Stooksbury last year against Price. Moreover, turnout for Tuesday’s special election was 43.47%, well short of the roughly 75% of voters who cast ballots last November, leaving substantial room for improvement and demonstrating that Mr. Ossoff’s relative gains versus Ms. Clinton’s performance are impressive if not proven dispositive. Whether or not nonvoters can be accurately identified and motivated remains to be seen, but Mr. Ossoff’s ceiling is certainly higher numerically—if not proportionally—than we saw yesterday.
Conversely, if $8.3 million couldn’t deliver an additional 4,352 votes Mr. Ossoff needed to win outright, another $8 million may not deliver the salvation Democrats seek in the face of a united Georgia Republican front.
Can Karen Handel Consolidate Republican Support?
Former Secretary of State Karen Handel began her campaign for the Georgia Sixth much as she started it—in front of a myriad of other Republican candidates. While she earned only 19.78% of the overall vote, she took home 38.9% of the Republican vote (compared to Mr. Ossoff’s 98.4% of the Democratic vote), a substantial plurality despite the presence of other well-established candidates in the race.
The challenge for Ms. Handel is to now make her appeal to the supporters of her previous opponents, most notably Bob Gray (10.81%), Dan Moody (8.85%) and former state senator Judson Hill (8.77%), and to rally suburban Republicans to her cause. In a race that turned nastier among the Republican frontrunners than the RNC may have liked, Ms. Handel will need to assume not only that Mr. Ossoff is capable of repeating Tuesday night’s performance, but also pick up the fallen mantles of her most recent foes.
Wednesday morning began auspiciously enough for Ms. Handel, as both Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston voiced their public support. And while high-profile endorsements for Ms. Handel’s opponents failed to bear fruit—think Sen. David Perdue’s endorsement of Dan Moody—it stands to reason that Georgia’s moderate, business-friendly governor in particular may be more effective in uniting the party behind her. Should Ms. Handel succeed in broadening her support among the Republican base, a victory should be well within reach numerically.
Is Donald Trump a Help or a Hindrance in the Georgia Sixth?
President Trump was quick to claim credit for Republican efforts to force a run-off on Wednesday morning, but a closer look at the numbers may indicate that his support is more of a liability than a luxury for Ms. Handel as she moves forward.
After all, Mr. Trump won the district by less than two points last November, trailing former Rep. Tom Price’s 2016 performance as well as 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney by roughly 21 points each.
Also of note is the fact that the Republican candidates most closely aligned with Mr. Trump’s policies and rhetoric were comparatively shellacked by Ms. Handel, with only Bob Gray breaking the ten percent barrier and Bruce Lavell, former head of Mr. Trump’s diversity coalition in Georgia attracting a meager 0.24%. While Ms. Handel’s website also touts her positions on several of Mr. Trump’s primary objectives—such as repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act—she has chosen her words carefully thus far, equivocating on her support for specific policies to replace Obamacare and avoiding mention of Mr. Trump’s name in her self-styled victory speech Tuesday night.
Clearly Ms. Handel is aware of the potential pitfalls of a very public endorsement from the president, but she almost certainly risks voter attrition should she shun him entirely. Whether or not she is able to secure her desired seat on June 20th will depend in large part on Mr. Trump’s popularity in the district, her ability to sell herself as a more traditional conservative candidate, and Mr. Ossoff’s aptitude at tying the Trump administration’s early failures on healthcare and immigration around her neck.
What Can We Expect?
Put simply, the unexpected. While much of the national and state level media discussion of this race has centered around whether or not Atlanta’s northern suburbs are “trending” Democratic, it is important to remember that Tuesday’s election is a data point, not a trend in and of itself. And though the influence of factors such a “Trump backlash” seem evident, predicting an outcome at this point would be to do so based on incomplete data.
We do not know the Ossoff campaign’s internal numbers tallying how many of their targeted voters turned out, nor are we aware of Republican polling concerning Ms. Handel’s crossover appeal within a Republican party stretched ideologically thin in recent months. Our only known quantities going forward are Mr. Ossoff’s unrelenting willingness to work and the historical nature of the district he seeks to represent.
Avenues to the Capitol exist for both Mr. Ossoff and Ms. Handel, but in the interim we will have to wait and see if either can complete the journey.
In the meantime, expect Ossoff and Handel-sponsored programming to make up a sizeable amount of your television viewing experience.