The (close to) final results are in from Georgia and considering Democrats spent over $30 million on the contests it is a huge disappointment. Democratic wonder kid Jon Ossoff lost to Karen Handel by 5.2 percent (almost 13,000 votes) in a race the polling showed neck and neck (but never Handel with a five point lead). So what can be gleaned from GA-6 tonight? Well, quite a lot actually.
First-off, in suburban districts, higher turnout does not equal Democratic wins. While GA-6 was certainly a red leaning district ,Democrats touted the voters who had not voted in April who had this month. Well, turns out, more likely than not despite being younger and less white they might have actually been more Republican than expected.
The result casts doubt on Democrats path to a majority. Based on 2012 results the district was the 83rd most Republican in the country. But, based on 2016 results only 26 other Republicans held more Democratic districts. The district also has the highest percentage of college educated whites held by a Republican in the nation. This means that Democrats would have to run an inside straight on winning 24 seats like GA-6 if they could not win any more deeply red leaning districts.
Secondly, massive spending does not equal victory. Consider Democrats spent less than $100K in Kansas and lost by six points. They spent $5 million in Montana and lost by six points. They spent a mind blowing $30 million and change in GA and lost. But, they spent $100K in South Carolina and lost by less than four percent.
There is something Democrats can learn here. Democrats are motivated and interested in rebuking Trump and they form the most likely to vote cohort. But the strata below them seems to be disproportionately Republican. As a result, as Democrats spend millions on motivating their less active voters they also activate less than motivated Republicans who only become active because they fear what a Democratic winning the district would do in Congress. South Carolina and Kansas, where Democrats spent little money but came closer than in Georgia and Montana, seem to back up this possibility.
The fallback both candidates were flawed is accurate. But it also means Democrats cannot fall back on that argument in Georgia. Ossoff was obviously strong enough to win 48 percent in April and managed to get $30 million plus in donations. Yet, something in the end made voters turn away from him in droves.
Part of it might be the ads the GOP ran. The GOP seemed to have found two primary attacks that stuck. First, he was inexperienced. Secondly, he would be a hack of Nancy Pelosi. It cannot be underestimated just how detested Pelosi is among Republicans and Independents. Yet, few Democrats in the House Caucus seem willing to ditch her to win (it helps the party is a bunch of old, rich and white liberals).
Though it probably will not dent the narrative the GOP is in trouble GA-6 and SC-5 shows that local factors matter. Turnout in SC-5 was atrocious in a district that favors Republicans meaning they were hurt more than helped by low turnout. The GOP candidate in South Carolina ran a low-key, run out the clock campaign. Meanwhile, the election in GA-6 saw sky high turnout (obviously) yet saw Ossoff struggle on foreign policy questions and security right at a time when most voters were making up their minds. This probably hurt him more than the polls reflected as evidenced by how 2/3rds of the district swung rightward.
On that note….the polls were again off. While the latest polls show a deadlocked to small Handel lead just a week earlier they had Ossoff up by as many as seven points. They also showed, until a couple days ago, the early vote favoring Ossoff by twenty points.
Now, to be fair, polls have margins of error and three to four points meant that Handel could have led even in a poll showing Ossoff ahead. But, still, it is hard to believe the race swung that significantly in the last week (even with Ossoff arguably blowing the contest).
Two final points. First, GA-6 taken alone largely invalidates the generic ballot showing Democrats six or seven points ahead of Republicans. Certainly, SC-5 validates the polls. The problem is SC-5 only occurred due to low turnout but GA-6 had incredibly high turnout including among Democratic voters. Democrats might want to pay attention to this going forward, especially since Ossoff spent millions motivating low turnout ethnic voters and still failed to get them to the polls in big numbers.
Lastly, polls show Trump at 40 to 45 percent approval in the district but it did not matter. In the end Handel scored almost 55 percent and Ossoff finished with a smaller percentage of the vote then he did in April. Such a result is stunning.
But, it also suggests to Democrats even in affluent, highly educated districts they cannot count on Trump to drag down down-ballot Republicans. Yes, historically, midterms have been a referendum on the President’s party and since he is not on the ballot they take it out on the President’s party’s candidate/s. But, Trump is so unique this dynamic may not hold or at least be so strong. GA-6 gave us our first major data point this might be the case and if so Democrats will struggle in many other purple districts trending blue even in the age of Trump.
Handel did not embrace Trump but she did not run away from his agenda either. She defended the AHCA, called for tax reform and posed as a security hawk (all in alliance with Trump’s policy goals to date). Congressional and Senate Republicans reading the tea leaves from this race regarding their policies popularity might be breathing a sigh of relief. Even if only a small one.
Ultimately, Democrats cannot deny the fact last night was a significant loss. They actually believed they could win and still lost. They spent $30 million and still lost. The district was tailor made for a switch and they still lost. Democrats might be motivated to vote but in the kind of red leaning districts they need to take the House (GA-6 actually is three to four points more Republican than the median district in the country but its demographics mirror many other purple seats) it does not appear to be enough.