The GOP can breathe a little easier after Republican Karen Handel’s victory over Democrat Jon Ossoff in the special election for the 6th Congressional District seat after a campaign that set records for spending and drew a national spotlight.
But not too much easier, warn local political pundits, as Handel won narrowly on June 20, with just under 52 percent of the vote. She’ll likely be re-elected in the 2018 midterms, but open seats may see more of a battle, said Oglethorpe University political science professor Joseph Knippenberg.
“No one really thinks that a Tom Price seeking reelection in 2018 would be fighting for his political life,” Knippenberg said shortly before the Election Night results came in. Handel replaces former U.S. Rep. Tom Price, who left the seat earlier this year to become the U.S. secretary of health and human services.
Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state and Fulton County Board of Commissioners chair, is a well-known figure in the majority-Republican district, which includes parts of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs.
Ossoff was a political newcomer who lives outside the district, an unusual situation allowed by the U.S. Constitution.
Knippenberg said the race between Handel and Ossoff was so special that it cannot be used to predict political campaigns in 2018. Among the reasons: the enormous campaign funding.
“Two sides spent $50 million on this race … so it is not much of a predictor for future races,” Knippenberg said. “This race is unprecedented and can’t be replicated that many times in 2018.”
Knippenberg said he believes political convention wisdom will prevail and that incumbents, regardless of party, will win re-election in 2018. Where there may be a question is where there is an open seat, he said.
Republicans will, however, be “running scared” in 2018, no matter what happened in the 6th Congressional District race. “They’re going to have to work harder, break a sweat, raise more money,” he said.
Democrat Joe Seconder of Dunwoody, founder of the Perimeter Progressives, is hopeful the energy surrounding the Ossoff campaign that touted 12,000 volunteers will carry into future campaigns at the state and local levels.
“The Georgia GOP has taken two-and-a-half decades to be where they are today. This is Year One for the Georgia Democratic Party, in my opinion,” he said. “This is Year One for active, progressive and engaged Democrats. We have built a network that did not exist six months ago.”
Becky Alterman of Dunwoody, one of the Ossoff volunteers, acknowledged her disappointment with his loss, but said the energy surrounding Ossoff’s campaign was a “silver lining.”
“I think it means we got a really strong movement started and this [GOP control] is not how it is going to be forever,” she said.
Alterman said this was her first campaign where she volunteered. She did so because she opposed Handel’s views on social issues, she said, and she wanted to send a message to Trump.
“Things are changing. I think we’ll get there,” she said.
Knippenberg said Handel’s victory does reassure Republicans that the 6th Congressional District is a fairly solid red district and the best Democrats can hope to do in this district is “come close.” But the numbers do show some shaky ground.
“[Ossoff’s] overall vote total was nearly the same as what Tom Price’s challenger received in 2016,” Knippenberg said the morning after the vote.
“To be sure, not everyone who voted Democrat in 2016 voted for Ossoff in this round. Some stayed home. But lots, and I do mean lots, of Price voters either stayed home or switched sides,” he said.
Handel’s totals were down in the June 20 runoff by roughly 20,000 in Cobb, 13,000 in DeKalb and 33,000 in Fulton, Knippenberg said.
“I don’t mean to suggest that the Handel campaign performed poorly. That kind of falloff is what you’d expect in a special election in the summer, even with voting as convenient as it is,” he said.
“But I think it’s fair to conclude from the consistency between the 2016 and 2017 raw Democratic vote totals that Ossoff mobilized virtually every possible Democratic vote,” he said. “At the moment, the best Democrats can do in this district is come close.”
Todd Rehm, a Republican political consultant from Brookhaven, said the Georgia GOP is on “strong footing” going into 2018.
“We will continue to have internal debates over President Trump’s executive actions, legislative proposal, and more than anything else, healthcare reform,” he said. “But those internal debates do not threaten our ability to come together after a heated primary or to make the strongest arguments to voters.”
Knippenberg said what Republicans most have to fear is the potential outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to take up a gerrymandering case in which Wisconsin challengers say district lines were unconstitutionally drawn.
Republicans and Democrats when in control tend to draw districts to favor party candidates, he said. But the decision by the Supreme Court, not likely to happen in time to affect the 2018 elections, could hurt Republicans more because there are simply more Republican elected officials throughout the country.
Ossoff’s strong performance, especially his consistent moderate stance, also must be noted by Republicans and Democrats, Knippenberg said.
“The anti-Trump energy mobilized Democrats, but they have to be careful. There are two kinds of anti-Trump energy – screaming at the barricades doesn’t play well in the 6th District, and Bernie Sanders doesn’t play well in the 6th District,” he said. “Ossoff crafted a message that I think sells in the district … that downplays the liberalism of the Democratic party.”
Handel, who must run for re-election in 18 months, also will not be able to campaign and tout strong social conservative issues, like say a Rick Santorum, Knippenberg said. If she runs the kind of a campaign that mainstream Republicans run, “all things being equal, she wins,” he said.
Handel appears to be already thinking that way. In a statement after her victory, Handel said she would “ensure the conservative legacy and leadership” of past 6th Congressional District seat-holders including Price, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and Newt Gingrich.
–Dyana Bagby and John Ruch