Almost a Must-Win for Democrats in Georgia 6

Stuart Rothenberg June 12, 2017 · 9:30 AM EDT

Democratic strategists may hate the idea that they must win the June 20 special election in Georgia’s 6th District, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Jon Ossoff’s defeat would not tell us what will happen seventeen months from now in the 2018 midterms any more than Republican Tim Burns’ defeat in a 2010 Pennsylvania special election presaged that year’s midterm outcome nationally. And it probably wouldn’t impact Democratic recruiting much or dry up fund raising for very long.

But a Democratic loss would have a significant impact on the political narrative of the summer and early fall, right up to November’s gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia. And another special election defeat, in an upscale district that did not embrace Donald Trump the way districts in Kansas and Montana did, would lead to another round of finger-pointing and self-flagellation by Democrats still consumed by their 2016 defeat.

Maybe most important, a win by Republican Karen Handel would deny Democrats and anti-Trump Independents something that they very much need: a sign of progress, an optimistic outcome that would energize the president’s opponents and prove to President Trump’s critics that he is a liability. 

Right now, the stars seem to be aligning for Ossoff, so a Handel victory would be a punch in the gut for critics of the president.

Trump’s poll numbers are down, including among those who support him strongly, and the media attention he has received recently couldn’t be much worse. Democrats in other congressional special elections have improved on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 showings, and the Georgia district, while quite Republican, was won by Trump by only a single point last year. 

Forget that most of the polling has shown Ossoff ahead. Not all surveys seem entirely reliable these days. Forget that Ossoff has been a fundraising machine. Money is a necessary part of a winning campaign but doesn’t guarantee victory. 

And forget that Ossoff drew 48 percent to Handel’s 20 percent during the jungle primary, when 18 candidates received votes. When you add up all the votes, the 11 Republicans combined to draw 51 percent of the vote, while the five Democrats drew 49 percent. This is still a Republican district.

And yes, Ossoff has warts, plenty of them. He is young and looks it. He doesn’t live in the district. And he is a Democrat in a district that went comfortably for Mitt Romney, John McCain and its last congressman, conservative Republican Tom Price.

So, Democrats have plenty of ready-made excuses of they lose the special. But that won’t help them avoid Republican crowing and Democratic whining following a loss.

If there is one reason for Democratic optimism it may well be the April open primary.

Sure, when you add up the total vote, Republican candidates received a couple of more points than did the Democrats. But there is a different way to look at that result.

A large 31.2 percent of the vote went for a Republican not named Karen Handel. Handel isn’t exactly a fresh face, and the fact that the former Fulton County commissioner, Georgia secretary of state, 2010 governor hopeful and 2014 Senate candidate drew only a little more than one-third of the total GOP vote is a red flag.

Handel not only needs to hold her own voters (not all that difficult), but also attract almost all of the votes of the other Republican candidates. Alternatively, she needs to turn out a large number of GOP voters who did not vote in the April open primary, and that’s what national Republican groups, including Congressional Leadership Fund, are trying to do.

Any Republicans who voted in April but don’t vote for Handel this time – even if they are not voting at all – are helping the Ossoff.

Democrats remain enthusiastic and angry about Donald Trump, and they are likely to turn out for Ossoff again. The burden, then, is on Handel to turn out not only her voters but any and all Republicans.

If a Handel victory would be deflating for Trump’s critics, an Ossoff win would be difficult for the president and his supporters to swallow.

GOP strategists surely would worry publicly about the ramifications of the defeat, and television’s talking heads would jabber on and on about growing GOP vulnerability in the midterms. And, if Trump’s past behavior is any indication, a Republican defeat in the Georgia race would lead the president to look for a scapegoat, refusing to take any blame himself.

Given the closeness of the 2016 presidential race in this district and President Trump’s controversial behavior since then, Ossoff should have the upper hand in this special election. But the contest looks tight. Democrats need a win, while Republicans can’t afford a loss.