The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

11 years ago, there was a special election very similar to Georgia’s. Here’s what happened.

Democratic special election candidate Jon Ossoff walks offstage after speaking to his supporters Tuesday. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Stop me if you've heard this before:

  • A special election in a conservative-leaning, affluent congressional district on the outskirts of a major city
  • An unpopular GOP president with an approval rating in the high 30s
  • Democrats unite around one candidate in hopes of pulling off the upset and rebuking the president, but fail to gain a majority in the primary
  • Republicans crowd the field and trail big on primary day, leaving an uncertain two-month runoff

It happened Tuesday in Georgia. And it also happened 11 years and one week before, in California in 2006.

Back then, Democrats were eager to send a message about George W. Bush by pursuing California's 50th district, based in San Diego. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) had succumbed to tax evasion and bribery convictions, making it an attractive target for Democrats to push an anti-corruption message. Their standard-bearer was Francine Busby, a local school board member who had lost to Cunningham two years before. Money poured in from Democratic groups.

On primary day, April 11, Busby routed the crowded field of Republicans but came up shy of a majority. Former congressman Brian Bilbray (R), like former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel (R) today, lost by nearly 30 points in the primary, 44-15 (Handel trailed Democrat Jon Ossoff 48-20). And like Handel, he emerged despite a more moderate record that made him a target for conservative foes.

But while the Democratic candidate clearly won the plurality, Republicans won more votes on primary day, suggesting a one-on-one matchup would be tough for the blue team. In California in 2006, the GOP led 53 percent to 45 percent; in Georgia Present Day, it led by a narrower 51 to 49 margin.

Those who follow Congress know how California turned out; Republicans held on despite losing some ground in the runoff. While the GOP vote outpaced Democrats by 8 points in the primary, Bilbray won by 5 points in the runoff, 50 to 45.

The Post reported at the time on Democrats' failed gambit:

A special election for a House district in California left Republicans with control of the seat, while offering scant evidence of the highly energized Democratic electorate that analysts say would be needed to dislodge the GOP from power on Capitol Hill in November.

The race didn't turn out to be the bellwether Democrats hoped it would be, but the momentum was still theirs. Five months later, they gained 31 seats in the House and retook the majority for the first time since the Republican Revolution in 1994. Two years later, after winning a trio of special election upsets in conservative districts in Illinois, Mississippi and Louisiana, they controlled the House, the Senate and the presidency.

The California-Georgia parallels only go so far. In Georgia, Democrats have a young, dynamic candidate that they're excited about in Ossoff; in California, Busby was a retread who had lost by 22 points in 2004. Late in the race, she would infamously say, “you don't need papers for voting, you don't need to be a registered voter to help.” Near the U.S.-Mexico border — and with illegal immigration a different issue at the time — Republicans argued that she was calling for undocumented immigrants to support her. It was a late unforced error, to be sure.

If anything, in Georgia it's the opposite, with major questions about Handel. Since serving as secretary of state, she lost a 2010 primary for governor, resigned from the Susan G. Komen Foundation in 2012 amid controversy over its ties to Planned Parenthood, and finished a disappointing third in the state's 2014 Senate primary, failing to even qualify for the primary runoff. One of the big factors in the runoff will be whether Handel can run the kind of strong campaign we really have yet to see from her.

Given that backdrop and the history of these kinds of races, Ossoff would seem to have a real opportunity to get more than 50 percent June 20. But even if he doesn't, we're still a year and a half away from the 2018 election — far more than the five-month span between the California-50 race and the 2006 midterms — and plenty more will shake out.