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What’s to come as Georgia special election moves into a runoff

April 19, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
Republicans avoided a brutal loss Tuesday after Democrat Jon Ossoff fell just shy of a win in Georgia's special congressional election. The race now faces a runoff between Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. Judy Woodruff speaks with Stuart Rothenberg of Inside Elections and Dante Chinni of the American Communities Project about what’s to come for Georgia politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrats came close, but Republicans managed to avoid a potentially brutal loss in Georgia, for now, forcing a run-off in a closely watched special congressional election.

JON OSSOFF (D), Georgia Congressional Candidate: This is already a victory for the ages.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Thirty-year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff fell just short of an outright win in Tuesday’s crowded special election. But by capturing 48 percent of the vote, the filmmaker and former congressional aide easily outpaced the other 17 candidates.

JON OSSOFF: We have shattered expectations.


JON OSSOFF: We will be ready to fight on and win in June.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The seat in Atlanta’s suburbs came open when Tom Price was tapped by President Trump to his Cabinet. No Democrat has won here since 1979. And now Ossoff faces a run-off against Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, and the top Republican, with 20 percent of the vote.

KAREN HANDEL (R), Georgia Congressional Candidate: On June 20, we keep the Sixth District red and kick a little Ossoff.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Handel never mentioned President Trump last night, but today said she wants his help.

QUESTION: Do you think that President Trump will come to Georgia and campaign with you?

KAREN HANDEL: I would hope so. It is all hands on deck for us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For his part, the president compared the result with last week’s close Republican win in Kansas. He tweeted: “Dems failed in Kansas and are now failing in Georgia. Great job, Karen Handel.”

But Democratic Party’s national chair, Tom Perez, praised the Ossoff showing.

TOM PEREZ, Democratic National Committee Chairman: Just a few weeks ago, they were saying a Democrat can’t get over 42 percent, 43 percent of the vote. He got 48.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Georgia race generated national interest and a flood of money. Ossoff raised $8.2 million, 18 times more than Handel. In total, Republicans and Democrats spent more than $13 million. And outside groups funneled in nearly $8 million, with more than half of that on ads attacking Ossoff.

The Republicans face at least two more special elections in the months ahead, in Montana and South Carolina.

So, can Democrats turn anti-Trump sentiment into actual wins in upcoming races?

For that, we are joined by Stu Rothenberg, senior editor of Inside Elections. And Dante Chinni, he’s director of the American Communities Project. It’s a county-by-county look at the U.S. electorate. He is also a columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

And we welcome both of you back to the program.

Stu, more than $8 million, unheard of amount of money in this district. Why couldn’t the Democrat, Jon Ossoff, pull this off, get over 50 percent?

STUART ROTHENBERG, Inside Elections: Well, Judy, this is a very Republican district. You have to understand that — by more than a dozen points.

Republicans, when you look at past Republican performance, Mitt Romney winning it overwhelmingly. Tom Price won it very comfortably, over 60 percent of the vote. So, it’s a tough lift for any Democrat.

And I think Ossoff did exceed expectations. And now we will see what happens with the run-off. Again, it’s always about turnout, isn’t it?


Dante, what did Democrats do right? What did Ossoff do right, and where could he, should he have done better?

DANTE CHINNI, American Communities Project: I think what they did right is, they found a good district to run in, frankly.

This is a district that — Donald Trump only won this district by 1.5 points, even though Price won it by quite a bit. And it’s the kind of district that is really made for what the Democrats are now. It’s extremely well-educated. It is diverse. It’s not super diverse. It looks a little bit like the country at large in terms of the white non-Hispanic population.

This is a district that is made for where the party is right now. And this is the — these are the kind of people, the kinds of voters that the party is resonating with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stu, that doesn’t sound like every single district out there that Democrats need to win.


Well, look, Judy, this is a Republican district, but not a Trump district, and there are other districts out there. There are 20 — I think it’s 23 Republicans sitting in the House — in House districts that were won by Hillary Clinton. The Democrats need 24 seats.

So, this is the kind of district that’s part of the mix, highly educated, high-income district that doesn’t take to Donald Trump’s style, his personality, and some of his issue agenda.

But there are other issues, other districts out there that Democrats are going to have to win, and win first, frankly, before a district like this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s talk for a moment about Donald Trump, Dante Chinni.

Is there a clear sense at this point how much difference he made or didn’t make in the outcome here?

DANTE CHINNI: I think it’s way too early to know what kind of difference he made in terms of helping keep Ossoff under 50 percent.

I think, though, that if you look at what happened in this district, look, as Stu was saying, this is a district where Romney ran up — I think he won by 23 points. In 2008, John McCain won this by close to 20 points, I think 18 or 19 points.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are mainstream Republicans.

DANTE CHINNI: Yes. So, this is a district where I think, if you were just looking at the numbers, you would say Donald Trump probably didn’t help — helped the Democrat much more than he helped Karen Handel.

And so the question — when I saw the question asked of her, do you want Donald Trump to come down here, look, you’re going to say what you’re going to say. He’s president of the United States. You’re a Republican seeking a seat in Congress. You’re never going to say, don’t come down here. But when I look at that, just…

JUDY WOODRUFF: She said, I hope so.


When I look at that district, I don’t — who knows? Who knows? I don’t see the benefit in Donald Trump going down there for the Republican. I see — that’s the kind of thing, actually, that could help Jon Ossoff.

Look, there are splits in the Republican Party, as Stu was saying. There are different kinds of districts. This kind of district is not a good district for Trump. OK? This is the kind of district where too much Trump is going to maybe turn off a lot of the voters in this place. Remember, we’re not just talking about Republicans. There are moderates.

And moderates, this is not …

STUART ROTHENBERG: In fact, the Democratic strategy is to make the race a referendum on Donald Trump, because, otherwise, it becomes about party, partisanship, which is bad for Ossoff.


STUART ROTHENBERG: So he needs to make this — look, he’s a young kid with not a lot of experience, not a lot of credentials. He doesn’t even want the race to be about himself.

He wants it to be about the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I think both of you were saying this is going to be tough for Ossoff to win the run-off.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, because it’s such a Republican district. But if you add up the Republican votes and Democratic votes, it’s likely to be close. I regard the district, the race as a tossup.

DANTE CHINNI: Yes, I think Stu is probably right.

I think the political environment is so unsettled right now. And normally, you would say, June, that’s not that far away. June in this 2017 feels about a million years from right now. Who knows what Donald Trump is going to tweet. Ossoff is not — he’s a young candidate, inexperienced candidate. A lot of things could happen.

But, yes, I agree. Looking at it right now, it looks like as tossup.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, having said all this, Stu, what lessons can Democrats take away from this for these other places, not just the special elections this year, but for next year?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think they’re going to have to nationalize and any and all elections and make it about a midterm president who is not particularly popular.

Trump’s job approval, it depends on what poll you look, 39 percent, 40, percent, 42 percent, whatever it is. So, they want these elections to be about Donald Trump and the more controversial elements.

They are going to need to recruit good candidates in a large number of congressional districts to put those districts in play. If they can do that, then it depends. We don’t know what Trump’s job approval is going to be like a year-and-a-half from now. We don’t know what issues we’re going to be talking about.

So, the dynamic needs to kind of feed a sense of change and a referendum on trust for the Democrats to win back the House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And redistricting in the geography, the demography of these districts isn’t favorable to Democrats, right?

DANTE CHINNI: No, but it’s changing. Right?

This is because there are the demographics of the two parties as we understand them now, and the demographics of the two parties as they existed back in 2012.

Look, I think that Donald Trump is taking — and I think a lot of people is think this — is trying to take the party in a different direction, the GOP in a different direction. He wants to talk about populism. He wants to talk to the people that are left behind.

Georgia 6 is not full of people who are left behind. There’s 58 percent of the population here who has a bachelor’s degree. The 10 best-educated districts in the country, nine of them are Democratic with Democratic members in Congress. The 10th is Georgia 6. It is an outlier in some ways.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Stu, for those districts where Democrats believe they have some kind of decent shot next year …

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think there will be enough districts in play so that the House is in play.

It is not there now. Democrats are just starting recruiting. They’re going to have to have a good fund-raising cycle. They’re going to need a good environment. They’re going to need the president’s job approval to be down around 40 percent. And if that happens, then they will be able to run — make the midterm a referendum on him. And the Republicans will try to run a different race. They will try to localize it. They will try to discredit the Democratic candidates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of ifs.


And there are a lot of these inherent splits in the party. Look, is Donald Trump the guy who is going to take the party and say, I’m anti-trade, I’m not pro-trade, I don’t like the global economy?

There are a lot of Republicans who do quite well in the global economy, thank you very much. And this is a very complicated kind of issue environment that has to play out. Where does he take the party?

And when he takes the party in that direction, what happens to these different sides of the party? We don’t know that. We will find out a lot more six months, 10 months from now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: April 19, we don’t expect perfect future prediction from both of you, but you generally get it very right, very close to right.

Dante Chinni, Stu Rothenberg, thanks very much.


DANTE CHINNI: Thanks a lot.