A race next year in Georgia’s 6th District could represent an early test for Democrats’ ability to make inroads with affluent, highly educated voters who traditionally vote Republican but moved significantly toward Democrats in the presidential election.
Rep. Tom Price has held the seat since 2005 and was again reelected easily last month, but the incumbent’s confirmation as secretary of Health and Human Services would open the seat and trigger a special election within the first few months of the Donald Trump administration.
While the district is traditionally rock-solid Republican—Mitt Romney carried it over President Obama by 23 points—Hillary Clinton came within 1.5 points of Trump there, according to a Daily Kos analysis. Some Democrats think Trump’s unpopularity in the suburban Atlanta district, along with shifting demographics, could give the party a shot if it can recruit a strong candidate.
“This is the kind of congressional seat we need to do better in than we’ve been doing, both to make inroads in the U.S. House as well as to have a better shot at winning Georgia in 2020,” said Georgia Democratic strategist Jeff DiSantis. “We need to be competitive in a place like this to have any chance at getting back in the game nationwide.”
Republicans enter the forthcoming race with some clear advantages: There appear to be far more potentially strong GOP candidates considering a run than Democrats, and no Democrat has won the seat since Newt Gingrich first won it in 1978.
“If you’re a Democrat, you’ve got to have six or seven things, many of which you can’t control, go your way in order to have a chance,” Republican consultant Chip Lake said. “I really don’t foresee any realistic scenario that has a Democrat winning a runoff election in the seat.”
Democrats’ hope rests on a candidate consolidating support early in the all-party special to ensure a clear path into the runoff while Republican candidates spend weeks bashing each other. Democrats contend they have a chance if they can field a candidate capable of persuading voters to take out any frustration with Trump on the Republican nominee for the seat.
“The Republican Party is Trump now, and vice versa, so there’s no reason to think the same reaction isn’t going to be there,” DiSantis said.
Several Democrats mentioned state Rep. Taylor Bennett, an attorney and former Georgia Tech quarterback, as a candidate who could make the race competitive. He won a special election last year for his overlapping legislative seat but lost reelection narrowly last month. Bennett did not return a request for comment.
One challenge may be persuading a promising candidate to risk losing a race in a district Democrats are not accustomed to winning. Elly Dobbs, a former state representative whom one Democratic operative floated as a potential candidate, said she is not interested and that “it would be very difficult for a Democrat to win that seat.” State Rep. Scott Holcomb, whom operatives on both sides of the aisle mentioned as a potentially promising candidate, said he does not plan on running.
On the Republican side, a wide swath of potential candidates are rumored to be considering a run at the seat, while state Sen. Judson Hill has already announced a run.
Karen Handel, a former secretary of state who has lost races for governor and Senate, would enter with high name recognition and an existing network. State Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones is considering a run, as are a number of other former and current state representatives and senators. Another source of speculation: Bruce LeVell, a prominent Trump supporter in the state.
One name, however, dominates much of the speculation on the Republican side: state Rep. Betty Price, an anesthesiologist and wife of the outgoing incumbent. Price told National Journal she has not decided whether to run and is still weighing a variety of factors, including the responsibilities that would come with her husband’s new position.
“I’m very interested in who fills the seat—I’m just waiting to see how it all shakes down,” Price said, noting that she thinks it would be helpful to have someone with a medical background in the seat as Obamacare is being debated. Both Price and her husband are physicians.
“I’m not enthusiastic about anybody at the moment, and some I’m very unenthusiastic about,” she said.
The compressed process hands a clear advantage to someone able to quickly mobilize a political network or who has existing financial resources, especially in the expensive Atlanta media market. Price argued that a premium on name recognition and ability to quickly mount a campaign would both accrue to her favor.
“It’s a big race, but the good thing is it’s a short race,” Price said.
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