Jon Ossoff did not do the impossible. In an 18-person field, he did not get more than 50 percent of the vote, but then few observers expected him to. (As GOP veteran consultant Stu Stevens tweeted: “Getting over 50% with almost 20 candidates is like throwing a football through 10 swinging tires at 50 yards.”) What Ossoff did do was quite extraordinary, winning 48.1 percent of the vote, which is 5 to 6 points higher than the margin predicted in most pre-election polls.
It’s easy to forget that Georgia’s 6th District is a very Republican district. As FiveThirtyEight explained, “Georgia 6 is about 9.5 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole. (That is, if there were a tie in the national popular vote, a Republican would be expected to win Georgia 6 by 9.5 points.)” In 2016, Tom Price did much better than that, winning the House seat by more than 20 points. President Trump did much worse than the partisan numbers would have suggested, winning by 1.5 points.
Imagine if a Republican won 48 percent of the vote, say, in a New York City congressional district when the Democrats spent a boatload of money and President Barack Obama weighed in. Democrats would not be “breathing easy”; they’d be popping antacids. The same should hold true for Republicans in the GA-6.
In other words, Ossoff — in a district with a 9.5-point Republican advantage — ran 10 points above the 2016 Democratic House contender and ahead of Hillary Clinton (who won less than 47 percent). That strong showing keeps the district as a tossup in June.
Even a weaker showing (43 percent to 45 percent) would have made the June runoff competitive. Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report wrote several days ago, “Bottom line: it’s a Toss Up. But as one of the wealthiest, most urban, and best-educated districts that voted Republican last fall, it’s also an outlier and rather unrepresentative of the larger House playing field.” Nate Cohn of the New York Times likewise argued before the vote, “Even if Mr. Ossoff falls short, a strong showing — over 45 percent of the vote — would suggest that he would be very competitive in the June runoff. A weaker performance wouldn’t rule out a June victory, but it would be considered underwhelming given Mr. Ossoff’s many advantages in the race so far.”
Trump, who weighed in with some tweets in the final days of the campaign, took credit for the result, which is odd considering the margin of Ossoff’s victory and the horrid showing of candidates most closely linked to him. (Bob Gray got 10.8 percent, and Bruce LeVell and Amy Kremer each got 0.2 percent). Given Ossoff’s better-than-polling finish, there’s a good argument that Trump helped Ossoff. The telltale sign of just how unpopular Trump is? Republican runoff candidate Karen Handel didn’t mention him in her speech on Tuesday night. You can get bet that Ossoff will in the general election.
Democrats would say that if the Georgia 6th is such a struggle for the GOP, then things look bad for Republicans in 2018, when many seats with less than a 9.5-point GOP advantage will be in play. That includes Republican-held seats in districts that Hillary Clinton won (e.g. VA-10, Florida-26, CA-39 and 49) and less heavily Republican districts (e.g. IA-1, MN-2, NY-19).
Republicans would respond that a win is a win, and if $8 million doesn’t get you a single House seat, nothing will. Nevertheless, while they dodged a bullet yesterday, a loss in June would be just as devastating and would likely provoke a new wave of panic about Trump’s effect on his party’s fortunes.
Georgia native and conservative commentator Erick Erickson warned Republicans not to celebrate:
Don’t believe the Republican spin that this was expected and they’re home free in the runoff. While I support Karen Handel and she is a friend, her campaign team has often lagged in generation of grassroots enthusiasm and she does not like to raise money. That said, she is so well known in the 6th, she could play the first stage of this race conservatively and did. Additionally, while the race was going to be close given the dynamics, Jon Ossoff did better than most people, myself included, expected. He outperformed the polling and did better than Hillary Clinton. Democrats are far more energized than Republicans and warning lights should be going off at the NRCC and NRSC right now. Had Ossoff gotten less than 45% of the vote, I would say you really cannot read anything into this. That he almost won is troubling for the GOP.
[And] don’t believe the White House spin that this was not a rebuke of the President. The more closely aligned a candidate was with President Trump, the worse that candidate did. Bob Gray, who was viewed as the Trump candidate, actually opposed Donald Trump vocally throughout the primaries and at one point was declared NeverTrump. But he ran as a partner for Trump. He did better than Bruce [LeVell] who did coalitions work for President Trump in Georgia. He, in turn, did better than Amy Kremer who helped run a Trump related super PAC.
One thing is clear, however: If the GOP goes the way of Trump — catering to working-class whites with a xenophobic, nationalist message — it will find it increasingly hard to win in more affluent, educated suburbs. The challenge for Democrats then would be to capture these voters, hang on to women and minority voters and reclaim the white, working-class voters who may be disappointed or even angry when they find out that Trump has sold them a barrel of snake oil. That’s the coalition that Obama put together — and that Clinton could not hold.