Special Elections Don't Mean Much. Except This One.
Special House elections bring out the worst in political analysts. Writers can't resist leaping to grand conclusions about the meaning of every contest to replace some departed congressman even though, most of the time, there isn't any meaning at all.
But you know what they say about stopped clocks. Everybody's hyperventilating about the national implications of this month's special House election in the suburbs of Atlanta -- and this time everybody's right.
For Republicans, the race to keep a grip on a seat they've held for 39 years is a test of the price of loyalty to an unpopular President Donald Trump. Beyond that, it has the potential to induce a panic attack by signaling a disaster in the congressional elections next year.
For Democrats, even the thinnest victory margin in Georgia would revive a demoralized party now banished from power in Washington and most of the country. An equally narrow defeat could crack open divisions bottled up by the party's unified contempt for Trump.
Already the contest between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel for the seat vacated by Tom Price's resignation to become secretary of health and human services is the most expensive House race in history. The candidates, political parties and interest groups are expected to pour in as much as $70 million by election day, June 20.
The last time a special House contest meant so much was in February, 1974, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, when Democrats pulled off an upset victory for the Michigan congressional seat held by Gerald Ford, who had been named vice president. That win foreshadowed a Democratic landslide in midterm elections that November.
Strategists in both parties predict that an Ossoff win would:
- Energize the Democrats' political and fundraising base.
- Signal that Democrats have a realistic chance to pick up the 24 seats they need to take control of the House of Representatives next year.
- Aggravate relations between congressional Republicans and the White House by encouraging incumbents to stop defending their unloved president and strike off on their own.
If Handel wins, it's Democrats who will find themselves exposed to disunity -- Senator Bernie Sanders has questioned whether Ossoff is liberal enough and his left wing of the party is already restive -- and some donors would be less willing to open their wallets for what would look more like a lost cause.
Republicans in other moderately conservative districts, like John Culberson, representing suburban Houston, would breathe sighs of relief. And House Speaker Paul Ryan would find more receptive ears for his argument that the best protection against political challenges is to enact substantive achievements on economic issues.
The Georgia district offers almost a perfect laboratory for these competing cases. Republicans have held it since 1978, when Newt Gingrich won his first victory. Price carried the district, which is affluent and more than 80 percent white, by more than 23 points last November -- almost the exact margin Ford enjoyed when he last carried his Michigan seat. The Almanac of American Politics has called it a "safe Republican" district.
Yet Trump won there over Hillary Clinton by less than two percentage points. It is the type of congressional district where Democrats have been doing a bit better in recent times and must win next year to have any chance to regain the House.
Ossoff easily won an initial contest among 18 candidates in April, but fell a little short of the 50-percent threshold required to avoid a runoff. Overall, Republican candidates got slightly more votes than Democrats. Recent polls, public and private, show a small Ossoff lead, but Republicans are doing well in early voting.
There have been 174 special House elections since 1974. The last one that mattered was Richard VanderVeen's victory in Ford's district, which had been held by Republicans for more than 60 years. In five of the six special House elections that year, Democrats took over a seat previously held by a Republican. That November, Democrats gained 49 seats.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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