Democrats nearly captured Georgia’s 6th Congressional District on Tuesday night, as the party’s candidate, Jon Ossoff, took 48 percent of the vote in an open primary. The race, which now heads to a runoff, was closely watched as a test of Republican strength — and Democratic energy — in a conservative-leaning district.
Here are some of our top takeaways.
Get Ready for a Slog
Ossoff, 30, a documentary filmmaker and former congressional staff member, fell short of a majority, but by winning 48 percent of the vote he signaled that the race is a long way from over. Republicans acknowledged that the June 20 runoff is likely to be competitive and that Ossoff’s Republican opponent, Karen Handel, 55, a former Georgia secretary of state, will have to work hard to raise money and energize rank-and-file conservatives.
A one-on-one contest may favor Handel. The district is more Republican than Democrat, and a standard-issue, right-versus-left message has typically worked there in the past.
But Handel is also quite likely to face a delicate political challenge: appealing to right-of-center voters, in a suburban Atlanta area where President Donald Trump is not especially popular, without alienating his passionate fans. She will need strong support from both groups to defeat Ossoff.
Voters Are Energized, Especially Democrats
Special elections are often sleepy affairs that draw only die-hard voters to the polls. That’s not what happened in Georgia. Strategists tracking the race thought that a turnout of 160,000 voters would be a lot. In the end, more than 194,000 people voted, nearly matching the turnout in the 2014 midterms.
Mirroring the dynamics of the Kansas special election last week, Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters turned out for the Georgia race in greater force. There was a drop-off on both sides from the November election, but it was steeper among Republicans: Ossoff collected 77 percent of the vote total that the Democratic nominee for Congress took last year, while the top five Republican candidates combined earned half the votes that Tom Price won in his last congressional race. The special election was called after Trump chose Price to be his health secretary.
As long as that enthusiasm gap endures, it will be a major source of anxiety for Republicans, even in normally safe districts like Georgia’s 6th.
Shaking Up the Map
If the Tuesday election was something less than an earthquake, it may have sent a more modest tremor through the political landscape. Both parties are currently creating their strategies for the 2018 elections, recruiting candidates and gauging how many districts they think they can put in play. While the midterms are a long way off, their early choices about targeting and recruitment can have outsized impact on the eventual results.
The Georgia result will loom large for both sides. For Democrats, the race is encouraging — an inducement to pursue other traditionally Republican seats in upscale suburbs, and a prime talking point for party officials as they seek to recruit appealing candidates. (“If Jon Ossoff can do it, why not you?”)
For Republicans, it is more of a cautionary tale, and a signal to sitting lawmakers that even normally safe seats should not be taken for granted in 2018.
The Trump Brand Didn’t Go Far
While liberal fervor to take on Trump helped boost Ossoff, conservative affection for the president appears to have been less of a factor in the race. In the field of Republican candidates, a small number aligned themselves emphatically with the president, including Bob Gray, a former Johns Creek city councilman, and Bruce LeVell, an energetic backer of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
But being perceived as a “Trump Republican” didn’t do much for these candidates. Gray finished third. LeVell earned just 455 votes, even after Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, visited the district to help him.
The voters who kept Ossoff from winning a majority seemed more driven by traditional party loyalty than any special allegiance to Trump. They favored conventional Republicans like Handel, and Judson Hill and Dan Moody — two former state senators — over those who attached themselves to the president.
Expensive Pressure for Democrats
A debate has been raging among Democratic strategists and activists over how aggressively to compete in right-leaning districts where Republicans are defending vacant congressional seats. The national party has favored caution in places like Kansas, Montana and South Carolina, while the base has clamored for all-out war.
For the Democrats who want to fight Republicans everywhere, whatever the cost in dollars and hours of work, Ossoff’s near-win in Georgia could be like a red flag waved in front of a bull. Every time Democrats fare well (or even just better than usual) in conservative areas, it may become harder for party strategists to argue that the toughest races are still out of reach.