Tuesday will likely be a major fix for political junkies as the most expensive House race in U.S. history heads to voters Tuesday in the northern suburbs of Atlanta between Jon Ossoff and Karen Handel.
Both national politicians and political pundits will be watching both this race (which is turning out to be rather close) along with the one in South Carolina. This one has gotten more attention because it’s viewed as being a ‘referendum’ on President Donald Trump and his policies.
“It’s truly a litmus test for America to see where they want to see the direction of this country to head,” a Washington insider said. “Do they want to continue with Twitter rants or are they ready for a calmer head to lead us?”
Big day tomorrow in Georgia and South Carolina. ObamaCare is dead. Dems want to raise taxes big! They can only obstruct, no ideas. Vote "R"
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 20, 2017
….because he doesn't even live there! He wants to raise taxes and kill healthcare. On Tuesday, #VoteKarenHandel.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2017
Donald Trump has thrown in his Twitter support, but it’s unknown whether this will help or hurt Handel. The latest attack ad on Ossoff blaming liberals for last week’s baseball shooting incident has backfired on Handel, and she’s been quick to disavow it.
Either Republican Karen Handel will claim a seat that’s been in her party’s hands since 1979 or Democrat Jon Ossoff will manage an upset that will rattle Washington ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Their matchup in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District has become a proxy for the national political atmosphere and a test of GOP strength early in Donald Trump’s presidency.
Here are five things worth knowing about the race, plus five reasons why this special election is worth all the attention.
IT’S OSSOFF’S YOUTH VS. HANDEL’S EXPERIENCE
Ossoff is a 30-year-old former congressional staffer turned documentary filmmaker. Making his first bid for office, he’s become a symbol of the Trump opposition movement.
Yet Ossoff barely mentions the president, talking instead in generalities about “restoring civility” and the importance of Congress as an oversight body. He doesn’t constantly refer to Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, directly either, instead pitching his “fresh leadership” against “career politicians.”
Handel, 55, embraces her experience as a statewide and local elected official. “You know me,” she says, adding often that Ossoff has “no record” and “inflates his resume.”
She’s also known as a Susan G. Komen Foundation executive when the organization in 2012 sought to cut off its support of Planned Parenthood, which provides services including abortions.
IT’S A TRUMP DISTRICT … BARELY
The Georgia 6th is an affluent and well-educated district that has elected Newt Gingrich, the former speaker; Johnny Isakson, now Georgia’s senior U.S. senator; and most recently Tom Price, who resigned in February to join the administration.
But even with that pedigree, Trump barely edged Democrat Hillary Clinton in November, giving Ossoff his opening once Price was confirmed. Ossoff hopes to maximize the district’s Democratic base and pick up just enough independents and moderate Republicans who don’t align with Trump.
Handel has handled Trump gingerly. She barely mentioned him ahead of finishing second to Ossoff in an April primary. She welcomed him for a fundraiser in late April, but it was closed.
Even a Trump Cabinet member and former Georgia governor, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, acknowledged the conundrum at a recent Handel rally, saying “some Republicans” are “turned off” by the president.
THERE’S BIG MONEY, FROM EVERYWHERE
Ossoff raised more than $23 million, most from outside Georgia. He emphasizes it’s mostly from individual donors. Handel notes that many of those people live in Democratic-leaning states like California, New York and Massachusetts.
Of course, Handel’s benefited from outside money, too; it just hasn’t flowed through her campaign, which has raised less than a quarter of Ossoff’s haul.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, has spent $7 million on her behalf. National Republicans’ House campaign arm added $4.5 million, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce chipped in another seven figures. A chunk of the $5 million Handel raised herself came in three fundraisers headlined by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
AHEAD OF 2018, BOTH PARTIES WANT TO WIN. REALLY. A LOT.
Democrats have plenty of energy nationally, but it hasn’t translated to the electoral scoreboard.
The party needs to flip at least 24 GOP-held seats by next November to reclaim a House majority.
Party insiders say Georgia is not a must-win given the GOP advantages here, but winning in a district like this could put them on their way to a successful 2018, and it would embolden donors and volunteers nationally – and potentially boost candidate recruiting in friendlier districts.
Losing would raise questions about whether Democrats can turn protests and fundraising records into enough votes.
For Republicans, it’s about defense, with a healthy dose of fear.
Winning in this once-safe GOP district would follow House special election victories this year in GOP-held districts in Kansas and Montana. Republicans are favored to hold a fourth seat up Tuesday in South Carolina, while Democrats already held their lone open seat in a California special election.
But if Handel loses, it will be a clear warning sign to House Republicans facing tough races in other suburban districts across the country, many of them among the 23 GOP-held seats where Trump trailed Clinton in 2016. And it will make all the clearer that there is no easy path for Republicans to run under Trump’s banner – he’s still popular with the base, but the base isn’t large enough to win every seat that Republicans hold now.
THERE’S ONE LAST-MINUTE CURVEBALL, BUT IT MAY NOT MATTER
A little-known political action committee unveiled a last-minute ad trying to link Ossoff to the shooting of a Republican House leader and others at a GOP congressional baseball team practice last week outside Washington.
Handel disavowed the ad, which blames the “violent left” for the shooting and suggests such acts would continue if Ossoff wins. Ossoff called Rep. Steve Scalise’s shooting a “national tragedy” that should not be politicized.
Principled PAC says it made a “five-figure” buy on Fox News, a low spending total on cable news that likely means the spot got more attention from the campaign and reporters than from voters.
Why is there a special election in Georgia?
The House seat was left open by Trump’s appointment of former congressman Tom Price as secretary of health and human services. The first round of the special election was held April 18. Ossoff won 48% of the vote, far more than Handel’s 19%, which earned her second place.
Because no one got more than 50% of the vote, a June 20 runoff between Ossoff and Handel was triggered.
Why the election matters
Ossoff’s strong showing in the first round, and in the polls since then, has Democrats optimistic he could represent the first sign of a coming Democratic wave in the wake of Trump’s turbulent first few months in office. With questions swirling around ongoing investigations into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia and the lack of major legislative accomplishments, many pundits believe an Ossoff win could panic Republicans into thinking their current approach isn’t working. They say that could set off a stampede of GOP lawmakers, hurrying to distance themselves from the president.
A win for Handel, on the other hand, could be interpreted by Republicans as evidence that their support among their base remains strong, leading them to cleave closer to the president and his agenda. (The same has been said for special elections in Kansas and Montana this year.)
With so much on the line, the Georgia race has shattered fundraising records with total spending expected to come in over $50 million. That would make it the most expensive House race in American history.
An Ossoff win would certainly be an upset for a seat that has been in Republican hands since 1979 and was previously held by former House speaker Newt Gingrich. But polling remains tight, and the administration has thrown its full support behind Handel, including a fundraiser with Vice President Pence and a tweet from the president urging people to “vote now for Karen H.”
What do the polls show?
The latest Real Clear Politics poll average shows Ossoff narrowly ahead of Handel with 49.3% to her 47.8%.
That’s less than the margin of error, and FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver cautions that “Georgia 6 is a tough district to diagnose.” While Mitt Romney won the district, which is comprised of wealthy suburbs of Atlanta, by 23 points over Barack Obama in 2012, Trump only defeated Hillary Clinton by 1.5 points in 2016.
What time are the polls open?
The polls open at 7 a.m. ET and close at 7 p.m. ET. The first results are expected to come in about 7:30 p.m.
More than 140,000 people voted early in the election so far, according to Georgia Secretary of State Biran Kemp.
“Tomorrow will be a pivotal day for voters as they elect new representation to serve in Washington, D.C., and all eyes are on Georgia to see the results of this hotly contested race,” Kemp said in a statement.
Georgia residents can check here to see if they are eligible to vote in the election.
What about South Carolina?
Lost in all the focus on Georgia’s special election is the race for South Carolina’s fifth congressional district between Republican real estate developer Ralph Norman and Democrat Archie Parnell, a former Goldman Sachs business manager.
There has been less national attention on that race because Norman is widely considered a heavy favorite. If Parnell were to pull off an upset, it would be a clear signal that Trump and congressional Republicans have reason to be concerned about 2018.
How have the special elections gone so far this year?
Greg Gianforte showed no signs of an anti-Republican swing, winning Montana’s May 25 special election to fill its own open House seat despite assaulting a reporter on the eve of the election. Gianforte’s win came on the heels of fellow Republican Ron Estes’ April 11 win to fill Kansas’ House seat left open by the appointment of CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
How many seats do Democrats need?
Even if Ossoff and Parnell were to win, the Democrats would still be far short of the seats needed to win control of the House. Going into Tuesday’s elections, the Democrats were 24 seats short of a majority.