The race for Georgia’s 6th Congressional seat will go down in history as the single most expensive House campaign in U.S. history.
That’s OK, though, because it might also be the single most important in U.S. history.
Admittedly, that claim is not as earth-shaking as it might sound. Looking back through the history books, the potential significance of the 6th in setting the future course of American affairs is small compared to that of, say, the 1858 campaign between Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln lost, but the race catapulted him to national prominence and two years later into the presidency.
However, that was a race for an Illinois Senate seat, not a House seat. Generally, it’s hard for individual House races to have historic impact. Every two years, we conduct 435 such races across the country, making it difficult to identify any one of those 435 as a race upon which history might turn. Their impact tends to be cumulative rather than specific.
Furthermore, the voters’ decision to elect either longtime Republican politician Karen Handel or Democratic newcomer Jon Ossoff won’t have any immediate impact on partisan control of the U.S. House of Representatives, where the Republicans enjoy a large, 45-seat advantage. Unlike the 1858 Senate race, the race isn’t likely to catapult either Handel or Ossoff to the presidency (although weird things do seem to be happening).
What makes the 6th important is symbolism.
Fifteen months ago, it was still hard to believe that Donald Trump might actually win the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency. Fifteen months ago, many 6th District Republicans who will be voting in the runoff that ends June 20 were aghast that their party could actually nominate such a man. And as patriotic Americans and loyal Republicans, facing a vote that will be interpreted nationally as a ratification of all that is Trump, they have to ask themselves:
Have the intervening 15 months confirmed or eased the fears they had back then? Are they fine with the direction that their country and party have taken? Speak now, or forever hold your peace.
If it’s fine with you, then vote for Handel with a clear conscience, knowing that you had the chance to object and did not.
If it’s fine with you to kick 23 million Americans off their health insurance and to watch as Trump destroys the NATO alliance, if you are comfortable with a Republican Party increasingly linking its brand to bigotry, if you’re good with a policy of rejecting science and fact, then by all means vote for Handel. If you like the idea of a Grand Old Party in which Trump permanently displaces Ronald Reagan as its defining personality, as the role model for the next two generations of GOP leaders, vote Handel.
But 6th-District Republicans who are unhappy about what is happening to their party and their country have no better way to voice that concern on behalf of Republicans everywhere than to vote for Ossoff. The loss of a district that Mitt Romney won by 23 points will do more than get the attention of national Republicans. It will be the excuse that at least some seek to begin to challenge Trump and to try to separate his political fate from that of the party.
And as difficult as casting that ballot may be for some, remember two things:
1.) It’s only temporary. In a short 16 months, you’ll be able to return to the polls and vote to replace Ossoff should you chose to do so.
2.) Loyalty to a party, like loyalty to a friend or loved one, does not require that you say nothing when they sink into self-destructive behavior. It requires intervention.