Voters go to the polls today in Georgia’s sixth congressional district for a special election. Polls heading into voting day show the race is a dead heat. Karen Handel or Jon Ossoff will win at the end of the day, and the results may be a harbinger of things to come.
The district has a long history with Democrats owning the seat from 1845 all the way until 1978 when thirty-five-year-old Newt Gingrich won the seat. He held it until 1999 when he retired. After that, Johhny Isakson held the position until he ran for the Senate in 2004. Tom Price has held it since, and when President Trump nominated him to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, the seat opened up.
The race is a referendum on the Presidency of Donald Trump, young as it may be.
Ironically, neither Republican Karen Handel nor Democrat Jon Ossoff spends much time talking about the President. Ossoff, with a lot of donations received from outside the district, is running a campaign that is more reminiscent of a moderate Republican than a Democrat, with ads emphasizing his willingness to cut spending and eliminate waste and fraud in government programs. Ossoff’s priorities page discusses healthcare, but Obamacare doesn’t merit a single mention.
Ossoff is hoping to attract crossover Republican voters in a district won by Donald Trump with a slim margin over Hillary Clinton. Based on polling data, Handel won’t come close to matching Price’s near 62% of the vote he received in 2016, the lowest since he first ran in 2004. A defeat will be especially embarrassing for Handel. She failed to secure the nomination in two state-wide races (one for Governor, the other for the Senate) and allowing the seat to return to Democrats for the first time in nearly 40 years will give Democrats a big boost going into 2018.
Make no mistake, Handel losing will be directly attributed to President Trump. Trump’s defenders will say Handel’s refusal to embrace Trump is responsible for her loss, but that makes little sense in light of Trump’s average job approval rating of 40 percent (and that’s due in part to the outlier of Rasmussen showing Trump’s job approval at 48 percent). Her loss will give Democrats reason to believe they can take back the House in 2018 with the Senate being a long-shot.
Democrats are convinced even if Handel wins by a slim margin; it gives them momentum. That’s where I part ways with conventional wisdom. The race is expensive with $50 million being spent by both sides. Since January, Ossoff took in more than $23 million, most of it from outside the state. If he cannot mount a campaign to win after raising that much cash, there are no moral victories. If Ossoff wins, it is big news. If he loses, it becomes just another congressional race next year.
With all of the money spent and with all of the media attention focused on this race, the President and his team will be watching closely as will the Democrats. A win by Handel, regardless of margin, is a win.
A win by Ossoff will be a disaster for Republicans and give a significant boost of confidence to Democrats.