As Ray Charles famously sang, “Ooh Georgia…The road leads back to you.”
Indeed it does. We’ll be hearing a lot about Georgia’s special congressional election for the next nine weeks, because the results on June 20 could give us an early reading on whether Democrats in 2018 have a decent shot of taking back the House – and embarrassing the buffoon in the White House.
Yeah, nine long weeks. Great Britain is able to stage an entire national election in just seven weeks, but we Americans like to drag things out. All of which virtually guarantees that Round Two of Georgia’s special election will be the most expensive House race in history, as Republicans scramble to hang onto a suburban Atlanta seat that they’ve held since the 1970s. And the fact that they’re scrambling tells us plenty about what life is like, for the Republicans, living under Trump’s heel.
Round One, as you probably know, took place last night. Under Georgia rules, all candidates in both parties appeared on the same ballot. Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democratic rookie, outdistanced 11 Republicans – winning 48 percent of the vote. His closest Republican rival got only 20 percent. Ossoff’s vote total was larger than his three closest Republican rivals combined. Round Two is required because nobody cleared 50 percent; Ossoff will go one on one with Karen Handel, the distant number two. But here’s what the results last night really told us:
For the GOP, Trump is dead weight. When Handel addressed her supporters last night, she chose not to utter his name.
Yup, a Democratic candidate topped the field – by 28 points – in a congressional district where Democrats typically lose by 20 points. It used to be Newt Gingrich’s district. And until early this year, it was Tom Price’s district. Trump’s new Health Secretary won re-election last November by 23 points. Heck, in seven straight elections, Price’s winning margin was a minimum of 20 points.
So the fact that Ossoff scored so well in a traditional Republican district, and the fact he’ll be highly competitive in the runoff (even if he doesn’t prevail), portends trouble for the GOP in 2018. This Georgia district wasn’t even in the first tier of Democratic targets. Nor was the Kansas district where, one week ago, a Republican candidate won a special congressional election by only seven points, in a ruby-red enclave that routinely elects House Republicans by 30 points.
Democrats need to swing 24 seats in order to take back the House, and their top targets are the roughly two dozen Republicans who hold seats in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in ’16. A strong June showing by Ossoff in suburban Atlanta could embolden grassroots Democrats to ditch their defeatism, lift themselves off the canvas, and actually do something that they inexplicably never bother to do: Vote in droves in midterm elections. And grassroots Republicans could face the challenge of sustaining their enthusiasm for a president and a Congress that can’t get anything done.
All of which raises the current stakes in Georgia. This runoff race will likely draw too much attention, but hey, it’s the only show in town, the only place in the next nine weeks where we can get an electoral reading of the public mood. And rest assured, it will get progressively uglier as the money pours in.
It’s ugly already. Ossoff, who’s new to elective politicking, has worked as a documentary filmmaker, and a Republican group has tried to claim that Ossoff is “a mouthpiece for terrorists” because his documentary firm once listed the Al Jazeera news organization as a client. Ossoff thus far hasn’t focused on Handel (a former Georgia secretary of state), but Democratic strategists are well aware that she was once a senior official of a charity group that tried to slash funding grants for Planned Parenthood. A foe of abortion, she quit when the funding flap went public.
Plus, we have the Trump factor. There’s nothing he loves more than having someone to hate, and Jon Ossoff fits the bill. The tweets have already started – Ossoff would be a complete disaster, the usual stuff – but it was particularly hilarious last night when he heralded the results as a “BIG R win,” when in fact the top-finishing Republican trailed by 28 points. But hey, this is a guy who thinks that his Navy “armada” was steaming toward Korea when in fact it was going in the opposite direction.
Indeed, David Jolly, a former House Republican, said that Trump could be a boon to Ossoff over the next nine weeks: “For Ossoff, it will be ‘the first 100 days of Donald Trump.’ The Republican in the runoff will have to struggle to figure out, ‘is it my job to defend Trump, who has a historic unpopularity right now, or is it not?’ But Ossoff gets to talk non-stop about how the last 100 days are bad.”
Trump tweeted, “Glad to be of help!” That alone should make the Republicans cringe.