Washington Week

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The Special Election in the Georgia 6th: Explained

By Joan E. Greve

If his Twitter feed is any indication, President Donald Trump is worried about the Georgia 6th. The district’s special election on Tuesday will pit the young and relatively unknown Democrat, Jon Ossoff, against 11 Republican rivals. In any other year, this race would likely not get much attention since the seat has been held by Republicans for nearly 40 years. Before now-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price represented the 6th in Congress, Newt Gingrich held the post for 20 years.


But Democrats are banking on two factors to procure them an upset victory: the unpredictable nature of special elections and the 6th’s shifting political make-up. Trump carried less than half of the consistently red district in November – a sharp drop in support from Mitt Romney four years ago, leading some Republicans to worry that the seat could be up for grabs. The president may well be fearing the same given his tweets Tuesday, insisting that Republicans “get out today and VOTE” because Ossoff “would be a disaster in Congress.”


Here is everything else you need to know about the race in the Georgia 6th:


The Money

As the old political logic goes, with great national attention comes great financial contributions. At least that’s how the media’s interest in Tuesday’s special election has panned out for Ossoff, who has raised $8.3 million from donors across the country.


“Normally, a Democrat running for Price’s seat would be lucky to raise $10,000 to $20,000,” Fulton County Democrats’ legislative liaison Phil Lunney told Vox in March. “There’s been nothing like it here, at least in the 21st century.”


The massive fundraising haul, which outweighs contributions to all 11 of Ossoff’s competitors combined, has prompted a monetary intervention from the Republican establishment. As Robert Costa reported for the Washington Post, the Congressional Leadership Fund, which supports House GOP candidates, put more than $2 million into negative television ads against the Ossoff.


But other Republican-aligned groups may be saving their money for the June run-off that Tuesday’s results will likely produce.


The Jungle Primary

Because of the system that the state of Georgia uses in special elections, this week’s results are unlikely to determine the definitive winner in the race to represent the 6th District in Congress.


During the first round of voting in a jungle primary, as this system is known, all the entered candidates – Republicans and Democrats – face off against each other. If no candidate is able to procure more than 50 percent of the total vote, a second round of voting is held at a later date (in this case, June 20). But only the top two finishers from Tuesday night will compete against each other on June 20.


Ossoff is very likely to be the top finisher this week, but can he hit 50 percent and avoid a runoff? Most commentators don’t see it happening. Ossoff hovers in the low to mid-40 percent range in recent polls, so it’s probable that he would need to defeat a single Republican challenger on June 20 to become the 6th’s congressional representative.


And the polls aren’t painting a clear picture on who that single Republican challenger will be.


The Candidates

Many of the state’s traditional conservatives had hoped that the former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel would easily grab the second spot for the June runoff and sail to victory. But Handel, who is known for her work opposing abortion rights, has faced intra-party opposition from candidates more effusively supportive of President Trump.


Bob Gray, a telecommunications executive, has risen to the front of this pack, even adopting Trump’s “drain the swamp” slogan in a campaign ad. Handel has been much more tepid in her backing of the president, telling the Washington Post on Monday, “Obviously I’m a Republican and support the president. But being in Congress is not the same as being an extension of the White House. I’m more than willing to step up and speak out when the circumstances demand that.”


The division between Gray and Handel reflects a division within the entire Republican Party: should they fully back Trump or keep the historically unpopular president at arm’s length? The answer to that question has almost evenly split Republicans in the 6th, whose support for Gray and Handel stood at a virtual tie in a recent poll.


The Test Run?

For all of these reasons, Democrats and Republicans alike will be reading the tea leaves of Tuesday’s race in an attempt to determine how Trump’s presidency will affect future elections, most notably the 2018 midterms. Will the Democrats be able to flip red districts that have inched away from the president? Will Republicans be able to avoid the pattern of a president’s party losing seats in a midterm?


But some of the district’s residents, including at least one of the candidates in Tuesday’s race, think that the 6th represents a poor test case of the country’s shifting electorate and that, for all the hype, Ossoff doesn’t stand a chance. “I don’t think it’s in the cards,” Bob Gray said this month. “This is a conservative seat. Let’s be real: Newt Gingrich, Tom Price. The district hasn’t changed that much.”


Tuesday’s vote will tell.