Republicans are nervously anticipating Tuesday’s congressional election in Georgia, furiously trying to prevent Democrat Jon Ossoff from winning a majority of the vote in a suburban Atlanta district that hasn’t elected a Democrat since Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The late flurry of spending from outside GOP groups has stunted Ossoff’s momentum, but the unpredictability of turnout in an off-year race and the possibility for some Republicans to defect are keeping party officials up at night.
The encouraging news for the GOP: A flurry of registered Republicans have showed up to cast early ballots in the past several days, closing the partisan gap that emerged early on. The New York Times’ Nate Cohn reported that, as of Thursday night, there’s a fairly even partisan split among early votes: Registered Democrats have cast 42 percent of preelection ballots and registered Republicans have cast 41 percent. Republicans are still seriously underperforming in the early vote, but not at a low-enough level to give Ossoff an outright victory.
The bad news for the GOP: Under normal circumstances, Ossoff shouldn’t be coming close to winning a majority of the vote in a conservative-friendly district like this. Democrats have effectively nationalized this race, using the low-key Ossoff as a symbol of Democratic resistance in the Trump era. Between Trump’s low approval ratings, an angry Democratic base, and an apathetic Republican electorate trying to figure out what the party stands for, an anti-Trump wave is building across the country. Republicans are also handicapped in this election because they have several credible candidates running on a crowded all-party ballot (led by former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, businessman Bob Gray, and former state senator Dan Moody), while Ossoff has unified the Democratic Party behind his candidacy.
While many analysts are focused on the level of turnout among partisans, it’s equally important to watch how many typical Republican voters defect from the party line. Despite raising record sums from liberal groups, Ossoff has shrewdly positioned himself as tough on national security and fiscally prudent in his campaign advertisements—a message specifically designed to woo moderate Republicans and independents. It’s easy to forget that a large chunk of reliably Republican voters cast ballots for Hillary Clinton just last November, nearly giving her a victory in this traditionally GOP seat. Compared to Clinton, Ossoff isn’t nearly as polarizing and is running on a more moderate message. If he can peel off a small slice of Republicans, it would be the final twist to a race that has surprised strategists on both sides.
Regardless of what happens Tuesday, the political environment for Republicans is toxic. Democrats are finding a flurry of credible Congressional candidates willing to run in tough districts, while Republicans are facing tougher-than-expected recruiting efforts in some of the most Trump-friendly territory. The competitiveness of the Georgia contest (a district with a Cook Partisan Voting Index of R+8) has underscored that Democrats have a fighting shot to win the House. The conventional wisdom has rapidly shifted from gerrymandering locking in permanent GOP congressional control to a supercharged Democratic base putting even conservative districts in play under the right circumstances.
The results from Georgia will offer important clues about how aggressively Democrats can expand the House map. If Ossoff wins outright Tuesday (after a closer-than-expected Kansas race), it will spark panic with the GOP majority. Ossoff also has a credible chance to win a June runoff, if he falls a little short of 50 percent in the first round. That shouldn’t offer any false hope to Republicans, either.
The GOP’s best hope? Betting that raising the specter of Nancy Pelosi-style liberalism will be enough to rally the GOP base and protect endangered suburban districts like this one. If their playbook in Georgia works, they’ll face a tough but salvageable environment in 2018.
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