The Hype Around Jon Ossoff’s Election

I continue to see articles in the national press about Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Specifically, the nation is supposed to be riveted on a Special Election that will occur to fill this seat on April 18th. If you don’t know anything more than what I’ve just said then you probably sense how ridiculous this is, because a special election for a single seat in the 435 member House of Representatives doesn’t mean much of anything.

I haven’t seen this much hype about a special election since Mark “Hiking the Appalachian Trail” Sanford predictably thumped Stephen Colbert’s sister on May 7, 2013. That election became necessary when Sen. Jim DeMint resigned his senate seat to take over the Heritage Foundation and Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Rep. Tim Scott to fill his seat.

The new obsession isn’t a sibling of a liberal Comedy Channel fake news comedian. Jon Ossoff is a documentary film maker and former congressional staffer. The idea is that he has no business competing in a seat that became vacant when President Trump assigned Rep. Tom Price to serve as his Secretary of Health & Human Services. Georgia’s 6th District overlaps with Newt Gingrigh’s old territory, and it preferred Mitt Romney to Barack Obama by 23 points. But it’s a well-educated district and increasingly diverse, and Donald Trump only carried by 1.5% points last November.

In Georgia, they have a runoff system, which means that no one will win the April 18th election unless they can clear 50% of the vote. If no one does, then there will be a follow-on election between the top two vote getters. Mr. Ossoff is almost assured of securing one of the top two slots because there are eleven Republicans in the race and only five Democrats. But the real goal is to get him over the magic 50% in the first election, because his chances go way down in a one-on-one race against a single Republican.

Here’s the point where cold water must be applied. Even if Ossoff does win this special election under these uniquely favorable conditions, he won’t help the Democrats retake control of the House of Representatives unless we wins again when he’s up for reelection in 2018. And, in that 2018, election, he won’t have the benefit of running against 11 Republicans.

So, why does anyone care about this election?

Partly, it’s because political animals love nothing more than elections, and we have precious few of them this time of year. Partly it’s because this is a symbolic seat, having been vacated by a guy who is now in charge of dismantling President Obama’s signature legislative achievement. The election could also be seen as an early referendum on President Trump’s job performance, I guess, and it also provides a test for how much erosion the Republicans are suffering in well-educated, affluent suburban districts.

But this is mostly hype. Special elections are weird and have odd turnout patterns that won’t be replicated in later general elections. They take place in their own political and economic environments. House races are never good barometers of the national mood, and congressional elections often have more to do with candidate quality and local issues than anything having to do with Capitol Hill or the president.

Another way of looking at this is to ask yourself what will be gained or lost by winning or losing this seat. Losing it will make the Democrats look weak and deluded, and that will sting for about 48 hours. Winning it will make Trump look like a drag on the midterm ticket and that might make a handful of Republicans more eager to create some distance from him. This could have some lasting positive effects, but the election’s usefulness as a predictor of the future is overrated and the Republicans will be beyond any lasting damage by the next news cycle.

Given the power of incumbency, it’s true that Ossoff will have a better chance of winning the seat in 2018 if he is already holding it, but that won’t change that he’ll feel constrained about voting with the Democrats all the time in a seat that Romney carried by 23 points.

I suppose my point here is that this election isn’t very important. Whether Ossoff wins the election outright, or loses in the runoff, or some other permutation occurs, we already know that the Republicans are hemorrhaging support in places like Georgia’s 6th District. We also know that they’re more than making up for it by successfully branding the Democratic Party as persona non grata in about 90% of the land mass of the country.

Perhaps the worst outcome from this election would be a Democratic victory that further convinced the left to accept that trade off. The seat in the 6th District is worth having, but a party can’t control state or national legislatures by doing well in cities and suburbs and nowhere else.

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