Decision 2017: A near upset for Republicans in Georgia

It’s not often that Congressional special elections get the nation’s attention. The race that concluded last night in Georgia, however, was one of the occasional exceptions to that rule, as this race was believed to be an early test of Donald Trump’s/Republican popularity in “swing” areas.

First, some background information: JMC Analytics and Polling has always believed that midterm/Presidential election results rarely occur in a vacuum: available data (such as changes in voter registration, partisan primary participation, the composition of the early vote, and special election results) can and does foretell what will happen before Election Day.

The 6th Congressional District of Georgia is located in the affluent suburbs north of Atlanta, and since its creation in 1992 has only and easily elected Republicans. In addition, those Republicans elected have all made an impact: Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House and ran for President, Johnny Isakson is currently a US Senator, and Tom Price (whose departure created the special election) is in President Trump’s cabinet.

And while this district has long given Republican Presidential candidates comfortable margins, it caught Democrats’ attention when a district that supported Mitt Romney 61-38% only voted 48-47% for Donald Trump. This was not an isolated incident, as affluent/white collar precincts across the country (even in parts of Louisiana) did not give Donald Trump the vote that Republicans would ordinarily get from this demographic.

This partisan shift, combined with the open seat, motivated Democrats to invest millions of dollars here in support of Jon Ossoff, even though four other Democrats were running. The Republican field was far more fragmented: 11 candidates sought the seat (as did two Independents).

Balloting concluded last night, and the seat will go to a June 20 runoff. Republicans came perilously close to suffering a massive upset: Democrat Jon Ossoff ran first with 48.1% and will face Republican Karen Handel (who was once Secretary of State), who finished second with 20%. If the primary vote were aggregated by party, Republicans “won” the race last night 51-49%, which is eerily similar to Trump’s 48-47% margin over Hillary Clinton last fall. There are several takeaways that can be compiled from this race:

(1) Like the Kansas race that concluded a week ago, Democrats are highly motivated, and that motivation was reflected in the early vote: Ossoff won the early vote over Handel by a whopping 62-14%, while Election Day voters supported Ossoff 43-22%;
(2) For a special election, the 192K (43% of registered voters) voter turnout was pretty high;
(3) Given that both Georgia and Kansas showed Republicans under performing relative to what Donald Trump received last year (more to the point, partisan battle lines have hardened even at the Congressional level), Republicans in “Clinton districts” or those where the Trump percentage was not overwhelming can not feel entirely secure.

The next partisan Congressional special election contests will be in Montana on May 25 and the June 20 runoff both for the Georgia race and a seat in South Carolina. While Montana supported Donald Trump 57-36%, it has a history of supporting populist Democrats from time to time, and as the Kansas race showed, a seven point drop in Republican support relative to what Trump received can make even this race a competitive contest.

Similarly, the Trump vote in the South Carolina contest was 57-39%, although this is more of a rural district without any large urban areas, and the Kansas race showed that rural voters are still strongly behind the President and Republican candidates.

The Georgia race, however, will be hard fought for the next two months. And even though some Democrats unwisely thought they could win this race in the primary with 50% of the vote in an 18 candidate field, the fact that the 49% Democratic vote nearly unanimously consolidated behind Ossoff in the primary means that they are within striking distance of a June 20 victory. And if they remain motivated, they can win this race unless the Republicans coalesce behind Handel and vote for her in large numbers.