Georgia Has a Message for Republicans: Be Worried

The state's closely contested special election race makes Republican unity even harder.

Democratic hopeful.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the closely watched special election in a Georgia congressional district, 11 Republicans and five Democrats ran to fill the seat vacated by Republican Tom Price when he became Donald Trump’s health and human services secretary. Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel advanced to a June 20 runoff in the traditionally Republican district, as neither received more than 50 percent of the vote. Bloomberg View columnists Jonathan Bernstein and Conor Sen discussed the vote and its implications as the results came in Tuesday night.

Jonathan Bernstein: A lot of frustrated-but-hopeful Democrats and relieved-but-worried Republicans in Georgia tonight as Democrat Jon Ossoff just barely missed a chance to take what has been a solidly Republican U.S. House seat. Instead, Ossoff will face Republican Karen Handel in a June runoff.

Conor, I loved your on-the-ground preview of this election. My national-level perspective, beyond the reality that every seat counts, is that what matters is the extent to which the results in this election drive the behavior of those who can direct resources towards the 2018 midterm elections. The most important of these are professional politicians who may decide whether to run for various offices or not based on the political climate, which will be be affected by what they saw here. So it’s not that the results directly predict future elections (they don’t); it’s that the reactions of political actors to what they believe happened can create self-fulfilling prophesies. 

Of course, this means both sides will try to spin the results in their favor. What should we know about the candidates and the district when we evaluate that spin?

Conor Sen: As I write this after 11 p.m. on election night, the networks are still unable to call the race, which is an encouraging sign for Democrats and Jon Ossoff. As you point out, Jon, the significance of this race from a national perspective isn’t about whether a Republican or Democrat will represent Georgia’s 6th congressional district in the House of Representatives, but what the race says about the national mood and the prospects for the House in the 2018 midterm elections. Republicans should be worried. In an expensive, highly-followed special election with high turnout, the district voted more like its tight Trump-Clinton margin than the large victory it gave to its former congressman, Tom Price.

Well-educated, somewhat diverse Sun Belt suburbs like Georgia’s 6th congressional district, some of the districts in suburban Houston, and the remaining Republican districts in Orange County, California are definitely in play in 2018. Democratic challengers should be lining up to take their shot.

Jonathan Bernstein: Absolutely true, although I’m not sure whether tonight’s results really add anything to what we already knew: Trump is unpopular, and he’s a danger to Republicans. 

Now, as you point out this isn’t a great Trump district given how Republican it is. But one takeaway tonight that I suspect Republican office-holders might be looking at carefully is the poor showing by Bob Gray, who at least according to the national press ran as a Trump fan. As of the results at this hour (and, yes, the counting is slow, and yes, the United States ought to put more money into better election mechanics), Gray failed to come close to making the runoff. The truth is candidates who have run as strong Trump supporters have fizzled repeatedly in Republican primaries, making it less and less likely that congressional Republicans will fear the tweeter-in-chief. Granted, Trump did not endorse Gray. I wonder whether that would have made any difference, however.

Conor Sen: This leads into a great follow-up about what sort of campaign strategy Karen Handel will use in a runoff.

There’s some lingering conventional wisdom that Trump’s close margin in the district was a fluke, and tonight may have been close, but in a runoff Republicans will consolidate around their candidate and give the person with the R next to their name a win, albeit closer than thought several weeks ago. But Handel will have a tricky task. On the one hand, she’ll need to win over every single person who voted for Bob Gray, Judson Hill, and Dan Moody -- all older, white, conservative, Trump-friendly men. On the other, she’ll probably need to expand her vote universe a bit by tossing moderates, independents, and women a bone or two.

And she’s lost a lot of elections. She lost a Senate race in 2014, and the governor’s race in 2010. And she’ll wind up with at most around 20 percent of the vote tonight. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to call Ossoff a slight favorite heading into a runoff.

Jonathan Bernstein: I see some on Twitter now poo-pooing this election. Sure, it’s overhyped. But I’ll go back to the idea that whoever wins the runoff will be in the U.S. House through the end of 2018, and single votes really can matter. We just saw a Republican health-care bill which needed every vote it could get (and, it turned out, a few more). They’re going to need votes to move funding bills, and the debt limit, too, just to avoid disaster.

The fundamental math of the House is that every solid mainstream conservative Republican who departs means one more House Freedom Caucus radical that Speaker Paul Ryan needs to win over -- which hurts the chances to get anything through the Senate. Either that, or he needs to find votes among Democrats, which loses more of the Freedom Caucus and perhaps other conservatives, which means Ryan needs more Democrats, and it spirals down from there. So it’s not nothing if Ossoff winds up winning the seat.

And remember, we have another of these in Montana coming up next. Alyssa Milano has already tweeted she’s on her way there! 

Conor Sen: This is a great point -- how many House Republicans are going to look at this race, add it to the list of the other special elections so far where Democrats have outperformed, and start deciding to be a little more independent with their votes than either House Speaker Ryan or President Trump want? The House remains in recess for another week, and there’s confusion about whether health care or tax reform will come first when it reconvenes, but the Kansas and now Georgia special election results should make what was already a difficult task for Republicans -- agreement on major issues like health care and taxes -- and make it harder.

And with that, I bid you good night!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.