On Tuesday, the long awaited primary election for Tom Price’s suburban Atlanta district was held. As expected, Democratic young gun Jon Ossoff advanced to the run-off. Also, as expected, Karen Handel advanced to face him.
There were two things of particular note that did not occur this election. First, despite the fractured GOP field, Ossoff did not avoid a run-off and finished two points behind 50 percent. Secondly, and this is both good and bad news for Republicans and Democrats, the partisan vote closely mirrored the Trump/Clinton vote of last year. The combined Democratic vote total 49 percent while the combined GOP vote totaled almost 51 percent (50.9 percent to be exact).
Republicans had to be hoping the Trump/Clinton match-up result was an aberration and the district would return to prior form. Democrats were hoping for more than a moral victory. Moral victories don’t net you much.
Still, this election can best be summarized as a “to be continued.” Nothing of import was decided last night. Okay, the candidates were but there were few surprises. The two best candidates with the highest name ID and street cred made it through the primary. Now for the next six weeks they get to train their guns on each other.
If the total Democratic vote tells us anything it tells us Ossoff has a good chance of flipping this red district. Indeed, Ossoff and Democrats hitting 49 percent indicates all it would take is a little drop-off in GOP turnout for him to squeak through (assuming he sheds little support).
That said, this is not a done deal for Ossoff either. Despite the outside ads that came in late to attack him the GOP field largely trained its fire on each other. For example, the Club for Growth spent more money attacking Handel than the guy promising to spend billions on liberal sacred cows. It was only GOP affiliated Congressional groups that attacked Ossoff.
It also has to be noted that facing a female Republican was probably not Ossoff’s preferred opponent. Sure, Handel has said she pretty much agrees with Trump on many issues but it makes it harder for Ossoff to peel off moderate Republicans from a women on social issues such as abortion and civil rights. Plus, it’s much easier to caricature a white GOP politician than a white, female Republican with a reputation for moderation on those issues. So, June will probably be harder rather than easier for Ossoff.
It is not an exaggeration to say this result is bad news for Republicans. Ossoff performed about four points better than the average of polls suggested he would (with undecideds unallocated). Republicans had to be hoping he hit around 45 percent and no higher.
The bigger concern for the GOP has to be moral victories like this for Democrats will embolden strong candidates to run in similar districts. The GOP is still strong in rural areas, KS-4 included, but their hold on the suburbs is tenuous. The results in Texas-7, California-45, Texas-32, Illinois-6, and Virginia-10 where Trump ran well behind the traditional GOP baseline has to be worrying.
Recent history can also suggest something as well. The past is not the present but it does offer clues. In 2013, Democrats suffered a drop-off from 2012 and as a result it led to disastrous 2014 results. Combined with legislative and Congressional election results this year to date, the trend could be reversed.
Now, all the above points considered, special elections are by definition unique. Especially a special election using a jungle primary system. Looking forward to next year, many Democrats won’t be running against a split GOP field. Instead, they will be running against entrenched GOP incumbents. Many of these incumbents have won time and time again in the very districts Trump did poorly in. Some have also won in unfavorable GOP environments like 2006, 2008 and 2012. These incumbents are also unlikely to face a Democrat who raised over $8 million and has an army of volunteers and paid staff from almost every liberal group in the country.
It is not a stretch to say another Democrat running in this district with maybe a million dollars would be closer to 40 than 50 percent. Until Ossoff raised serious money he was largely unknown in the district as former Tom Price opponents were. So, money does play a factor here and many Democrats running in similar places won’t have that kind of dough.
Finally, despite as bad as the results may look for Republicans I would advise them not to panic. It’s early, and even a few elections “do not a pattern make.” Ossoff staked his campaign on attacking Trump and right now the President’s approval is slightly moving up. He is also about even in approval in the district. So Ossoff won’t run away with the district in June unless Handel messes up.
Further, it is not impossible for Republicans and Trump to rebound. Few bet the GOP would hold the House in 1995 or in mid-2001. Even fewer thought the GOP would win the Senate three months out from November, 2002. But they did. So, outside events and times can/do change and the political environment changes with them. Sure, the election results are not great news for Republicans but remember the election is not being held today. It is being held in four weeks. And November, 2018 is still a long ways away.