Against the Grain

Georgia Special Election Going Down to the Wire

Democrat Jon Ossoff has been resilient, but still faces obstacles to winning the race outright next Tuesday.

Jon Ossoff is the Democratic candidate for the 6th congressional district of Georgia.
Dustin Chambers/Jon Ossoff for Congress
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
April 14, 2017, 12:50 p.m.

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 TimesNate 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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