Five Takeaways From the Georgia Special Election
Early Wednesday morning, Fulton County officials worked out a ballot processing issue and finished counting the votes in the special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Democrat Jon Ossoff just missed winning the race outright, with 48.1 percent of the tally, and will head toward a runoff in June against Republican Karen Handel. Here are five thoughts on what this means:
1. This isn’t a win, and it isn’t a loss. It is a “to be continued.” So summarized one of my twitter followers, and I think it’s the right way to look at this. Republicans on my timeline are mocking Democrats for their “moral victory,” while some analysts are noting that Democrats will have to win districts like this to take back the House in 2018. But this could well be an outright victory in six weeks. To the extent victory or defeat is crucial to your analysis – and it probably shouldn’t be here – we can’t really game this one out yet.
2. Ossoff will have a reasonable chance of winning in June. So Ossoff is going to end this first voting stage with (a) an awful lot of money, (b) momentum and (c) a combined Democratic vote share that is right at 49 percent. For him to take the district, all it would take is a slightly increased Democratic tailwind combined with some sour grapes from Republican supporters of unsuccessful primary candidates.
With that said, this isn’t a done deal for Ossoff, either. He’s had the advantage of multiple opponents beating each other up for the past few weeks, and Republican money got into the game reasonably late. He was hit by a late-breaking suggestion that he didn’t live in the district. A female Republican politician probably wasn’t his preferred choice for the runoff. But all told, this next stage is probably going to be harder for him, rather than easier.
3. This is not a great result for Republicans. Moral victories are a myth, but they can tell us things about other, similarly situated contests. It’s the reason the NCAA selection committee takes strength of schedule into account when seeding postseason tournaments. All other things being equal, Republicans weren’t neutral on the outcome here. They would have preferred that Ossoff wind up in the low 40s or even the 30s, instead of taking them to the wire. This district is, at its core, a Republican one, which a Republican should have won easily. As I put it Tuesday, there was a continuum of concern among Republicans from hardly any at all if Ossoff won 40 percent of the vote to panic if he won the district outright, with genuine concern starting in at around 45 percent. I still think that’s correct, and this outcome was closer to panic than “meh.”
It is true that Donald Trump did not run well here – the presidential race was very close. But that is part of the point. Republicans were hoping that the 2016 results were race-specific, and that without Trump on the ballot, this district would revert to Republican form. The reason is that there is a host of historically Republican suburban districts such as Texas 7, California 45, Texas 32, Illinois 6, and Virginia 10 where Trump ran well behind the traditional GOP baseline. If those numbers stick, there will be a lot of races that we haven’t seen as competitive in the past pop up on our radar screen. Additionally, this will help recruiting, as a bevy of Democratic officeholders will be thinking, “If a novice can do this, just think what I can do!”
Perhaps most importantly, there’s a larger storyline out there. In 2013, one of the better pieces that I wrote dealt with the Democrats’ drop-off problem. It noted that Democrats running in special elections were consistently running about four points behind President Obama’s 2012 vote results, and that if this kept up, they would have a rough 2014. In fact, that’s about where their popular vote share in 2014 wound up. I waited until December to write that piece, and will do so again here, but the results in 2017 House special elections, as well as in special elections for state houses and state senates to date, suggest that these trends have reversed.
Also, while there are different ways to measure these things, a president with a 42 percent approval rating running in a decent economy would expect to lose somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 House seats. So, the recent election results are roughly consistent with what we’re seeing in the national environment.
Overall, Ossoff ran about 1.5 points ahead of Hillary Clinton. If Democrats ran, on average, 1.5 points ahead of Clinton, they’d pick up 19 House seats, and be within sniffing distance of the majority.
4. Ossoff did have unique advantages. It’s important, however, to remember that special elections do involve special circumstances, many of which won’t be replicated in 2018. Namely, rather than badly split Republican fields, the midterms will feature Republican incumbents. These incumbents all will have won at least one election in their districts, most will have won in unfavorable Republican environments like 2012, and many will have won in awful Republican environments like 2008. They also won’t involve a Democrat who has raised $8.3 million (although money does have diminishing returns). These things aren’t necessarily dispositive, but they are important. A Democrat with $1 million running against an established incumbent here probably winds up closer to 40 percent than 50 percent.
5. It’s early. Perhaps most importantly, it is early. Despite protestations to the contrary, we don’t know where President Trump’s job approval will be in the fall of 2018. He’s currently on a bit of an uptick, so it isn’t impossible for him to win back supporters. In mid-2001, I doubt if many observers would have taken a bet that Republicans would keep the House (much less win back seats). Even in mid-2002, it seemed like an outside shot for Republicans to gain seats. These things do change, so while this isn’t great news for Republicans today, keep in mind that the election isn’t being held today. We’ll see where we are down the road.