The Costly Stakes of Georgia's Special Election

The dreams and fears that raised millions of dollars for an obscure candidate in one congressional district.

Hope against hope.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The outcome of the special election in Georgia's 6th congressional district will change nothing in government. The balance of partisan power in Congress will be essentially the same regardless of which party prevails. The impact on public policy may well be nil. Yet by the time voters go to the polls on June 20, tens of millions of dollars will have been spent in a trench battle over this scrap of suburban Atlanta. A recent Democratic poll has the race in a statistical tie.

Democrat John Ossoff, a talented neophyte who won the April 18 open primary, raised an astonishing $8.3 million by March 31. Many millions continued flowing into his campaign after that filing deadline, though the campaign hasn't been required to make those donations public yet.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the average cost of a House victory in 2016 was about $1.5 million. "The amount of money coming into the Ossoff campaign in particular has been remarkable, and that is likely to continue," emailed Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz.

To counter Ossoff's financial avalanche, the Chamber of Commerce, the Congressional Leadership Fund (tied to House Speaker Paul Ryan) and the National Republican Congressional Committee are all running television ads in the expensive Atlanta market to assist Republican Karen Handel. Since the primary, the Republican-allied groups have spent more than $7 million on television, with more spending on the way.

Why are both parties, and thousands of individual small donors and other partisans, so invested in this otherwise marginal race? "Because they have more money than common sense," emailed Democratic consultant Doc Sweitzer.

Republican consultant Alex Conant wasn't much more animated about the race. "I don't think you should draw any big conclusions from it," he emailed. "It's a competitive race that both sides badly want to win, and are spending the necessary resources to do so."

Another veteran of Republican campaigns suggested that the news media are driving the political dynamic. By treating the race as a proxy for President Donald Trump's political standing, reporters are raising the stakes of victory. The district's former Republican representative, Tom Price, who is now Trump's secretary of Health and Human Services, carried the 6th by slightly more than 23 points in 2016. Mitt Romney won it by the same margin over Barack Obama in 2012.

So like many of our most feverish battles, the contest in Georgia is mostly about symbolism, meta-politics and perception.

"Both sides understand the symbolism of this race," emailed Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. "For Democrats, winning or even coming very close suggests high Democratic energy after years of low Democratic energy. For Republicans, they understand that a loss could mean the start of a bad cycle. Think about the shot in the arm they got when Martha Coakley lost to Scott Brown."

Republican Brown defeated Democrat Coakley in a Massachusetts special election in 2010 to replace deceased Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy. Brown's upset victory was highly consequential, destroying the Democrats' filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate. But it also presaged the Republican wave victory later that year, when Republicans took over the House, gained seats in the Senate and brought Obama's two-year reign of policy victories to a screeching end.

That's the kind of signal that Democrats are eager to send in Georgia. They are as angry and fearful of Trump in 2017 as Republicans were of Obama in 2010. And they are desperate to believe that a Democratic wave is building toward November 2018, when they hope Trump will be repudiated and Democrats redeemed.

That's how a special election in Georgia has become suffused with meaning -- and inundated with tens of millions of dollars. Republicans want to avoid embarrassment. Democrats want far more -- a shaft of electoral light to pierce the darkness they've known since Nov. 8, when the implausible suddenly became all too real.

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

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