After tomorrow night’s special House election results in the sixth congressional district in Georgia (”GA-6”) are known, there will be a bumper crop of political commentary attempting to explain “what it all means going forward.” No matter what the outcome, dire consequences will be predicted for one side of the aisle or the other. Sweeping conclusions will be drawn and confident predictions made by pundits far and wide. In the end the GA-6 election may deserve all of this attention, but then again there’s an equal chance that it may not. But deserved or not, there will be real political consequences in the medium-term, as one party or the other may radically shift its campaign strategy for the 2018 midterms based on tomorrow night’s results. So it will wind up being a consequential election, even if all of the fulminating about “what it all means” turns out to be incorrect.
There are four possible outcomes worth examining. Either Democrat Jon Ossoff wins or Republican Karen Handel wins. In either case, they could win by a razor-thin margin in a very close race, or they could win a substantial and decisive victory. Let’s examine all four of these, with the possible consequences for the two parties as they contemplate 2018 strategies. We’ll take these in the order of “bad to good,” for the Democrats.
Karen Handel wins big
If the Republican candidate wins a decisive victory (which I’m defining as five points or better), this will cause some weeping and wailing and rending of garments within the Democratic Party. Conversely, it will act to calm and soothe worried Republicans.
In any normal year with any normal president (of either party), this district is pretty reliably Republican. So a big Republican win, even in a special election, would normally barely be newsworthy. But this is not a normal year, and this is anything but a normal election. It is the most expensive House race in all U.S. history, and might even place in the top ten list of most expensive Senate races of all time. That’s pretty extraordinary, and may not even take into account the tens of millions in dark money flowing in to the race.
Looking at the district’s House voting record, it’s hard to see how any Democrat would even have a prayer of winning here. Just last November, Tom Price won the district with a whopping 23-point margin of victory. But the reason the district is vulnerable is that, demographically, it looks more like a Democratic district than a Republican one. It is comprised mainly of wealthy suburbs of Atlanta, and it falls into the top ten House districts in the country when measured by percentage of residents with college degrees. The other nine such districts are all represented by Democrats. On top of this, Donald Trump won the district by less than two percent. So it’s not rabidly pro-Trump, and the special election has been portrayed as a referendum on how Trump’s been doing so far, and (specifically) on the House healthcare bill that Trump has celebrated.
The polls so far have shown a very tight race, or even a slight Democratic advantage. So if Handel manages a comfortable victory, it will only reinforce the idea that “the polls always get it wrong,” among Republicans. Now, special election polling is usually pretty sparse and often highly questionable, but the election of Donald Trump was so widely missed by pollsters that the reputation of public polling is already at a pretty dismal level. If Handel wins big, this will only add to this perception.
What this means for 2018 is that Republicans will feel free to largely ignore any polling they don’t like, and double down on supporting Trump (at least, for now). The Trump magic will be seen to still be working, and it probably won’t prompt any changes in overall Republican strategy for the midterms. Republicans in swing districts will likely not break strongly away from Trump in any meaningful way (at least, unless his current scandals get a lot worse).
Even though this is a normally-Republican district, if Handel wins decisively it will come as a crushing blow to Democrats. Of the handful of special elections this cycle, this race was seen as the most winnable by Democrats (hence the record amounts of spending here). Jon Ossoff is a pretty moderate guy, as Democrats go, and he was supposed to be appealing enough to entice Republican and independent voters disgruntled or disaffected with Trump to pull the level for a Democrat. If that doesn’t happen, Democratic chances of retaking the House in 2018 will be seen as much more remote.
In one way, it might actually be healthy for Democrats if Ossoff does lose big tomorrow night, because it might finally spur them to formally examine what is going so wrong for them at the ballot box. After the Republicans lost big in the 2012 elections, they immediately produced a “post-mortem” or “autopsy” report afterwards, in an attempt to identify what Republicans were doing wrong. Now, it must be admitted that (1) no Republicans actually took any of the advice in the autopsy, but also (2) it didn’t really matter, because they continued to win anyway. Even so, the Democrats have not had a similar self-examination after the 2016 disaster. First the party had to choose a new leader, but it’s been months since Tom Perez got elected chair of the Democratic National Committee, and still we have had no real attempt to bridge the differences which still fester in the party between the supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. If there is no attempt even made to reunify the party behind an agenda that appeals to both sides of this schism, then Democrats may enter the 2018 cycle in a pretty disorganized fashion ― which could hurt their chances. So if an Ossoff loss prompts a rededication to strong party principles, it could eventually wind up doing some good for the party overall.
Karen Handel squeaks by
If Handel wins by a point or two, then it may leave the current status quo in both parties largely intact. Republicans will still be worried that the electorate is shifting against them (and against Trump), since this district should have been an easy win for them (once again: just last November a Republican won here by a 23-point margin). But there will be a certain amount of relief that Democrats still haven’t managed to flip a single seat in the special elections this year. Republicans in swing districts will still face the choice of how closely they want to embrace Donald Trump and his agenda.
On the Democratic side, they will loudly attempt to proclaim a moral victory. If Handel wins by (say) three points, then the district will have shifted an astonishing 20 points towards Democrats since November. That is statistically significant, which Democrats will attempt to point out as forcefully as they can manage. But a moral victory is still a loss, when it comes time to add up who gets the speaker’s gavel.
If the loss is maddeningly close, it will likely not prompt any grand overall self-examination by the Democratic Party, though. A few percentage points can be explained away by any number of reasons (valid or not), which won’t spur much in the way of critical analysis of the party’s platform or the candidate selection process.
So a close win for the GOP is quite likely not to change much of anything on either side of the aisle, when it comes to their overall 2018 midterm strategies.
Jon Ossoff squeaks by
This win will be lauded to the skies by Democrats, no matter how close. That is pretty much a given. The media may also see this as a major bellwether for the midterm cycle. Democrats have already had two moral victories (read: close losses) in special House elections so far this year, in Kansas and Montana. They are salivating for an actual win at this point, so if Ossoff carries the day it’s not going to matter much to Democrats how big he won.
This will give rise to a lot of confidence within the Democratic Party, whether deserved or not. Winning one House seat isn’t going to change much of anything on Capitol Hill for the next two years, but it will indeed give the Democrats a lot of wind at their back entering the midterm season. Fundraising will be much easier. The energy of the “Resist!” movement will continue to grow. Democrats will begin speaking openly of the chances of retaking the House for Trump’s final two years in office. Nancy Pelosi will begin eyeing that gavel that Paul Ryan holds.
Republicans will become even more alarmed about their 2018 chances if Ossoff does win. This may be the impetus for a lot of GOP House members in swing districts to begin to break (in big ways and small) from Trump. If a “wave” election is coming, the only way for Republicans in swing districts to survive may be to start challenging the president. Perhaps the congressional investigations into Trump will be the first place this shows up. But one way or another, losing Newt Gingrich’s old congressional district is going to send a shockwave through the Republican Party. Their overall 2018 strategy may start to resemble a fearful crouch, in fact.
A word of caution, however, for Democrats reading this. If Ossoff does manage to squeak out a win tomorrow night, it may not be as significant as the entire punditocracy is going to make it out to be. Special elections rarely accurately portend the next election cycle’s results, no matter who wins them. So even if Democrats get enthused and Republicans get extremely worried, next November is a long way away. And as we’ve already seen, under Trump, things move pretty fast. November is almost seventeen months away. Trump hasn’t even been president for five full months yet. So literally anything could happen between now and next year’s midterms. Retaking the House is going to be a heavy lift for the Democrats in any case (due mostly to massive gerrymandering in the GOP’s favor), so one election in Georgia doesn’t guarantee anything.
Jon Ossoff wins big
One recent poll in Georgia put Jon Ossoff up by seven points. If this turns out to be an accurate read of the electorate, then Ossoff could win a decisive victory tomorrow night. This would usher in monumental changes in both parties’ 2018 strategies, and just might live up to all the hype (from the pundits and the media) it will surely give birth to.
The best-case scenario for Democrats is to both see Ossoff win big in Georgia and to also pick up a surprise victory in the South Carolina special House election which will also be happening tomorrow night. If Democrats flip both GA-6 and SC-5 on the same night, the Republican Party is going to absolutely freak out. Sheer panic will reign. The South Carolina seat has always been seen as much less winnable for Democrats by both the party apparatus and the media (and, even now, must still be seen as a longshot). So a surprise win here is going to shift the storyline considerably.
If Democrats pick up both seats, the conventional wisdom in Washington is going to become: “A Democratic wave is coming!” The only real argument will be how massive this tsunami is going to turn out to be.
This will obviously send confidence levels in the Democratic Party through the roof. “We’re on a winning streak, let’s take back the House!” will become their rallying cry. The prospect of shutting down Trump’s agenda cold in the House will be a tantalizing goal for Democrats everywhere. Their election strategy will probably become much more anti-Trump as a direct result.
Republicans are going to panic if they lose two races tomorrow night. Even if they only lose in Georgia, they’re still going to get extremely nervous. If the electorate is moving away from Trump in a big way, then there’s not much wiggle room for Republican candidates. Some will be able to choose to continue aligning themselves closely with Trump, but only the ones in districts that are overwhelmingly safe for Republicans. In swing districts the panic will be most acute, but Ossoff’s win (and the close finishes in Kansas and Montana) is going to mean a lot of Republicans in districts that lean Republican (without being overwhelmingly safe) are now going to have to consider themselves at risk in 2018.
This will open up the possible map for Democrats. It will expand the number of districts that both parties consider competitive next year. For Democrats, this will mean a full-steam-ahead approach, but for Republicans it’s going to mean chaos within the party. Some Republicans will peel slightly away from Trump, but some may break from Trump entirely in a desperate bid to avoid getting drowned in the building Democratic wave. This will make it almost impossible for the party to run a coherent national campaign next year, because so many Republican candidates will be running on: “I’m not a party hack, I know when to stand up to Donald Trump!”
As you can see, in only one case does tomorrow night not matter much to both parties’ campaign plans for the 2018 midterms. In the other three cases, major adjustments in strategy will likely take place. This is why tomorrow night’s results are most likely to be consequential far beyond the borders of GA-6.
Whether they turn out to live up to the hype won’t be known until after the 2018 midterms actually take place, however. It is always the nature of special House elections that they cannot always be taken as predictive. Local races are ― even with tens of millions of dollars injected ― surprisingly local, at times. One candidate or the other might just not have resonated with the voters. Negative campaigning sometimes works, and sometimes it backfires badly. Local issues that have no meaning in any other House race in the country might wind up being the biggest motivating factor.
So even if Democrats pick up two seats tomorrow night, their predicted wave might never actually materialize in 2018. Again, there is a lot of time between then and now, and anything could happen, good or bad. The only thing that is almost certain is that whatever the pundits predict will be “the pivotal issue in 2018” will turn out to have been woefully shortsighted.
Of course, that works both ways. If Republicans continue their sweep of special election districts that they previously held (in other words, denying Democrats any pickups), this also might give rise to a false sense of security among them. They’ll tell themselves that Trump is not dragging their party down and that their chances are great to maintain their House majority. But the Democratic wave might be building out there anyway.
No matter which side wins tomorrow, the danger for them politically can be summed up in one word: overconfidence. Reading too much into a string of special elections doesn’t always turn out as expected.
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