Could Georgia Democrats possibly pull off the impossible? Could some virtual unknown, a gangly political neophyte named Jon Ossoff¹, win the state’s 6th Congressional District, the GOP stronghold that was abandoned by Tom Price when he joined Donald Trump’s Cabinet?
I see you out there, Republicans … stop smiling and shaking your heads! It could happen.
You know it could happen.
Of course, “could happen” and “will happen” are two entirely different propositions. But look no further than your own TV sets. National Republicans wouldn’t be spending millions of dollars in TV ads against Ossoff unless they had at least some anxiety about a race that in an ordinary year, under ordinary circumstances, they would expect to win quite easily. And as you might have noticed, these are not ordinary political circumstances.
If you’ve followed Georgia politics, you know the 6th District is unique in the Peach State. More than 60 percent of adults in the district have a bachelor’s degree or better, well above the state and national averages, and more than two-thirds of 6th District residents were born outside the state of Georgia. Nonetheless, it still votes strongly Republican. In the 2012 presidential race, Mitt Romney swamped Barack Obama in the district by 23 percentage points.
In the 2016 race, however, Trump carried the district by a single percentage point, suggesting a high degree of uneasiness among the well-educated, upper-income Republicans who populate the district. That’s a lot of Romney voters who held their nose and voted for Hillary Clinton, and who also might be available for Ossoff. I’m just guessing here, but I’d bet that Trump’s behavior since Election Day hasn’t exactly quieted those concerns, particularly among women. (You also have to think that the GOP’s base is a bit disheartened by its stunning failure to keep their promise about Obamacare.)
Then there’s the process. Under Georgia law covering special elections, candidates of both parties will appear together on the April 18 ballot. If none of the 18 candidates wins a majority, the top two will compete in a June 20th runoff. Eleven Republicans have jumped at the chance to win an open congressional district, and as they try to sort themselves out, Trump remains a defining issue. Some have competed to embrace the president; others have kept their distance.
Democrats have no such ambivalence about Trump. In fact, both nationally and locally, I have never seen a group of people more energized about politics and more mission-driven. I have no idea whether it will sustain itself, but so far it has allowed Ossoff to raise some $3 million. Liberals around the country see this race down in suburban Atlanta, in Tom Price’s district, as their first chance to make a statement and be heard.
In short, the race in the 6th will come down to a contest between Democratic passion against a significant Republican numerical advantage, and ordinarily that would be an easy contest to predict. Again, though, nothing about this is ordinary. In a special election, turnout is everything. Early voting only began Monday, but Nate Cohn, who writes the data-driven Upshot column for the New York Times, reports that of those who cast ballots on that opening day, 55 percent had most recently participated in a Democratic primary. Conversely, just 31 percent had participated most recently on the Republican side.
“Democrats also enjoy a similar 45-to-21-point edge among the larger group of voters who have requested but not yet returned absentee ballots,” Cohn writes. Those are impressive numbers, given the district’s overall tilt toward Republicans.
Again, that’s just Day One. However, Republican operatives are watching those numbers as well, and are probably buying up more TV time as you read this to try to ensure the race goes to a June runoff. Ossoff and the Democrats are still the underdog, but as I’ve been reminded countless times by conservative friends since Nov. 8, sometimes the apparently impossible isn’t so impossible after all.
¹Four Democrats in addition to Ossoff have filed to run, including Ron Slotin, who was an effective, intelligent and conscientious state legislator back in the early to mid-’90s. Under different circumstances, Slotin might have been the candidate whom Democrats rallied around in the 6th, but Ossoff seized that banner before Slotin could and he has never relinquished that first-mover advantage.