What the Georgia Special Election Can Teach Us

Today, we’ll finally get some answers after countless articles have been written about the special congressional election in the 6th District of Georgia. The spectacle has turned 30-year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff, an independent filmmaker and former congressional staffer, into something of a rockstar. It’s reported that he’s raised an astonishing eight million dollars for his campaign, much of it coming from liberal outlets like Daily Kos and MoveOn.org.

There are actually several other Democrats running in the jungle primary (where you need 50% to win outright and avoid a June runoff election), but they’ve been blotted out. A last second Clout Research poll shows “former State Senator Ron Slotin, the only other prominent-ish Democrat in the running, pull[ing] only 1 percent.” It appears that the left’s votes will not be diluted.

The Clout poll, as well as an Emerson College survey from last week, shows Ossoff polling in the low forties. In fact, the last nine polls going back to March have been remarkably consistent on their measurement of Ossoff’s support. Even when they push undecideds, none of them get him above 49%.

But that doesn’t mean that he can’t clear the magic 50% number and win the seat tonight. A lot will depend on how many voters are mobilized and also by how well Ossoff has done with his persuasion effort. There are signs that the low-propensity voters are more engaged or self-motivated to vote on the left than on the right, and Ossoff should have an impressive and united ground game.

The Republicans in the race are getting comparatively little attention, even as the eventual owner of this seat is not unlikely to be the winner of second place tonight. Robert Costa of the Washington Post gives us a flavor of the infighting and division in that scrum.

Interactions with Trump’s political brand have veered from hearty embrace (Dan Moody, Bob Gray, Bruce LeVell, Amy Kremer) to support but not always rah-rah (Karen Handel, Judson Hill) to flat-out defiance (David Abroms). Most of the leading candidates have bounced between those poles depending on the day or the latest controversy…

…Endorsements from prominent Republican players have been scattered to the point of muddying the field. [Sen. David] Perdue has backed Moody. [Newt] Gingrich supports Hill, as does Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski endorsed LeVell. Former senator Saxby Chambliss is for Handel. But the conservative Club for Growth has opposed Handel and boosted Gray. To counter the club, the Ending Spending advocacy group, which is backed by the billionaire Ricketts family, has poured millions behind Handel’s candidacy.

It goes on and on like that further down the line in the state. One group or officeholder goes for Handel, another goes for Gray, another jumps in for Moody or Hill, and Trump supporters of different degrees poke and prod one another on social media.

Unsurprisingly, no one has caught fire, and constant squabbling has remained the thrust of the GOP race.

Obviously, all this internecine combat comes at the expense of focus on Ossoff, allowing the clean-cut Democrat to get a bit of a free ride. If he doesn’t secure the seat tonight by winning 50% of the vote, he’ll face a new climate tomorrow where the Republicans are focusing most of their attention on him.

But it may not be so easy to repair the hurt feelings or replace the depleted resources of this rugged Republican brawl. If a Pro-Trump candidate takes second place tonight, it’s not clear that they’ll be able to unite the anti-Trump factions under their banner. The Clout Research poll has pro-Trump Bob Gray leading Karen Handel 17% to 15%, while the Emerson survey has the situation exactly reversed with Handel leading 17% to 15%. If those polls are close to accurate, neither of them is a lock to win even half the Republican votes tonight. That’s a big pool of people who cared enough about the race to vote but supported a loser. In a runoff, Ossoff wouldn’t need to win many of these potentially disaffected voters, but he would have to win some.

A lot has been invested already in the narrative of this race, and it’s somewhat arbitrary to argue that there will be hugely meaningful differences in the significance of this election depending on whether Ossoff wins outright or barely misses. Either way, this is a seat that Health & Human Services Secretary Tom Price carried it by 23 points just five months ago. If Ossoff carries close to 50% of the vote, that will signal a significant erosion of Republican support. On the other hand, if he only carries 40 or 41 percent, that won’t really be that much of a change.

The hope on the left is that districts like this will begin to move their way. Trump carried the district by a single point, showing a massive gulf between how the district felt about him and how they felt about the man he would tap to lead his effort to dismantle Obamacare. If that gulf is erased tonight to the Democrats’ benefit, it could be a true indicator of a political realignment in tony suburbs all over the country.

Yet, as I have tried to point out repeatedly, this realignment won’t really benefit the left in the long run if the flip side of it is that the more exurban and rural districts move even further in Trump’s direction.

To give an illustration of what I’m talking about, when President Obama ran for reelection in 2012, he suffered a ten point loss in the percentage of his two-party support in just two Pennsylvania counties (midwestern Cambria and Elk). In 2016, Hillary saw a 10-point reduction in two-party support compared to Obama’s 2012 performance in 23 Pennsylvania counties, and in 45 counties when compared to 2008. In 2008, Obama carried 50% of the vote in southwest Greene County, costing him 60 net votes against John McCain. In 2016, Clinton won 29% of the vote in Greene County, costing her 6,367 net votes against Donald Trump. A 10% or greater drop-off in support in 45 counties compared to 2008 explains why Clinton lost even when bringing in more net votes combined out of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh than Obama ever did.

This same basic story also occurred in many other states, some of which, like Virginia, Clinton held on to win. On the whole, this realignment disfavors the left by making them uncompetitive in most of the counties in the country, meaning that it’s hard to find state legislative districts that elect members of both parties. This is not a realignment that should be embraced or accelerated, even though it could pay near-term benefits by helping the Democrats win back a very narrow and perilous majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

If the Democrats can win over the tax-averse well-educated white professional vote and carry affluent suburban districts, that’s great. But they need to do it without at the same time going from 50% to 29% in places like Greene County, Pennsylvania.

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