Georgia Race a Window on Dems' 2018 Odds

Georgia Race a Window on Dems' 2018 Odds
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With the special election in Kansas behind us, all eyes now turn to the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. This Atlanta-based district was vacated when Republican Tom Price was appointed secretary of Health and Human Services. Because of the absence of some of the strange local factors that probably affected the outcome in Kansas, this election provides a better test of the Democrats’ prospects in 2018.

As with every other Southern state, realignment toward the Republicans did not come to Georgia rapidly. It began in the northern mountains, where Republican sentiment was strong enough that the occasional Republican would be elected to the state House or state Senate.

But in the aftermath of World War II, Atlanta began to grow smartly. It also became wealthier and, in the process, began to vote for Republicans. In 1948, Tom Dewey won 29 percent of the vote in Fulton County and 30 percent in DeKalb County. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower won 40 percent and 43 percent, respectively. In 1956, it was 42 percent and 34 percent. In 1960, Richard Nixon received 49 percent in both. With the enfranchisement of blacks, Fulton County swung toward Democrats, and as the African-American population expanded southward, DeKalb and Clayton counties would soon follow. But the counties that ring Atlanta formed the basis of Georgia Republicanism, which never fully took hold in the rural areas of the state until the 2000s.

In 1964, Bo Callaway -- who actually hailed from the rural southwestern portion of the state -- became the first Republican to win election to Congress from Georgia since the end of Reconstruction. Callaway then ran for governor in 1966 (another first for Republicans since Reconstruction) and won a plurality of the vote, with substantial backing from African-Americans. However, the legislature ultimately awarded the governorship to Democrat Lester Maddox.

In 1966, two more Georgia Republicans won elections, and this time they were from Fulton and DeKalb counties. But their careers were as short as Callaway's. The Fulton County district flipped back to Democrats in 1972 (sending Andrew Young to Washington), while the DeKalb seat returned to the Democrats in the wave election of 1974.

The fourth Republican congressman, however, had staying power. College professor Newt Gingrich almost defeated Democrat John Flynt in 1974 and 1976, but came up just short in the Watergate election and the Jimmy Carter sweep. The year 1978 was different; Flynt retired under the weight of scandal, and Gingrich was elected to the 6th District. It was a very different district from the current 6th, however, as it cut a wide swath through the south of Atlanta and took in the growing suburbs fanning out toward Macon.

In 1982, Democrats left Gingrich mostly alone, but in 1992 they were determined to rid themselves of the lone Republican in their delegation. They largely dismembered his district, but Gingrich moved to what was effectively a newly created Republican district in the northern Atlanta suburbs and won there.

The district has changed in the particulars over the years, but it has remained anchored in northern Fulton and Cobb counties. Today it includes most of the northern “ball” of Fulton County, northern DeKalb County, and eastern Cobb County. It takes in upscale suburbs including Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, and part of Marietta.

It has also been traditionally Republican; John McCain won 59 percent of the vote here, while Mitt Romney carried the district with 61 percent of the vote. But that seemed to change in 2016, when Donald Trump won just 48.3 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 46.8 percent here.

So when Trump tapped Price for the open HHS slot, some wondered whether, in the right circumstances, this district might become competitive. Democrats scored a bit of good luck when filmmaker Jon Ossoff entered the race. Ossoff captured the imagination of the liberal grassroots and has raised an astounding $8.3 million for his race. He’s enjoyed a fractured Republican field, with six major candidates running.

Polling data are mixed. Internal polling reportedly had Ossoff brushing up against the 50 percent mark in March, but a wave of outside groups has descended to target him. Polling conducted in April has had Ossoff as high as 45 percent, and as low as 39 percent. He currently stands at 42.8 percent in the RCP Poll Average. Perhaps significantly, no public polling has put him above 47 percent, either in the primary or in the head-to-head races for a runoff if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote.

How will we interpret Tuesday’s results? First, I re-emphasize my general view that special elections are special, and that it is easy to read too much into them. This is especially true early in a cycle.

Setting that aside, Democrats have two basic paths to control of the House in 2018 – it isn’t an “either-or” option in reality, but it can crystallize our thinking. The first runs through rural areas, where disillusionment with the Trump administration could lead rural voters to turn to Democrats embracing populist themes. This is basically what we saw attempted in the Kansas special election.

The other option involves convincing traditionally suburban Republicans who were skeptical of Trump to vote for Democrats. That is exactly what we’re seeing here; Democrats are trying to make the district’s voting at the presidential level resemble voting at the congressional level.

With that in mind, I’ve set the following mental benchmarks: An outright Ossoff win would be a dire portent for Republicans. While we again shouldn’t over-interpret special elections, if Democrats are able to make the anti-Trump vote stick in suburban districts, a lot of seats that we didn’t think were competitive would have to be placed on our radar screen.

On the other hand, if a well-funded Democrat like Ossoff can’t break 40 percent in an open race against a fractured Republican field, it would be a signal that Trump’s job approval won’t be transferred to Congress easily.

In the middle is a sort of sliding scale in my mind: The better Ossoff performs, the greater the threat to Republicans. Of course, we have to keep in mind Ossoff’s funding and the broad Republican field, but around 45 percent is where I think Republicans probably need to start being concerned.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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