What Does Georgia Say About 2018?

Neither party has a sustainable strategy to carry it to victory in the midterms.


Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff at his election night party in Atlanta, April 18.

Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff at his election night party in Atlanta, April 18. PHOTO: ZUMA PRESS

Here’s the takeaway from Tuesday’s special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District: Democrats and Republicans have reasons to be concerned.

Democrat sachems cleared the field for 30-year-old Jon Ossoff and showered him with millions of dollars. They hoped to clinch victory without a runoff by clearing 50% of the vote in the first round against the splintered GOP field. It didn’t happen.

Mr. Ossoff won 48.1%, only 1.3 points better than Hillary Clinton did in the district last fall. Because the early in-person and absentee vote was reported first, he started the evening with 61.5%. But as the votes cast on Election Day were tallied, his numbers fell and finally settled below the 50% threshold. Mr. Ossoff now goes to a June 20 runoff. 

Democrats have a decision to make. Should they keep plowing millions into this race? Or do they divert resources to the May 25 special election for a House seat in Montana—a state that actually elects Democrats? The party could also simply stockpile dollars for 2018.

Complicating the decision are Mr. Ossoff’s lackluster political skills. He tries compensating for his youth by speaking clichés slowly in a bass voice, betraying excessive ambition. It doesn’t help that he lives outside the district. All this largely escaped attention as 11 Republicans—four of them credible candidates—cut each other up. But Mr. Ossoff’s shortcomings will be more visible in a two-person race.

Also advancing to the runoff, with 19.8% of the vote, was Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state. She has campaigned as the traditional, conservative Republican that she is. As an added advantage, she once was chairman of the Fulton County Commission, giving her chops on local issues in the state’s most populous county.

A two-person runoff will magnify Mr. Ossoff’s liberal views and give Ms. Handel a good shot at winning the 13% of district voters who supported former Rep. Tom Price last fall but did not vote for Donald Trump.

But Ms. Handel has a reputation as a poor fundraiser and lost primaries for governor (2010) and senator (2014). It’s also unclear if the GOP will remain unified in this deep-red district. The major Republican candidates earned 92,590 votes compared with Mr. Ossoff’s 92,390. Ms. Handel has little room for defections.

The quality of each side’s ground game will prove critical in the runoff. Ms. Handel’s victory could depend on how many volunteers show up at her headquarters or that of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the Republicans’ principal outside group in the race.

A defeat could foreshadow major Republican losses in 2018. Still, neither party’s approach to this special election is sustainable or provides an obvious path to victory in the midterms.

Democrats will not be able to clear the field in each priority contest or shower candidates with Mr. Ossoff’s record spending of perhaps $10 million. There won’t be enough open races in 2018 for Democrats to pick up the 24 seats they need for control of the House. They’ll mostly face incumbents, who tend to win re-election, except in massive wave elections like 2006 and 2010. 

Republicans relied on the Congressional Leadership Fund’s attack ads to keep Mr. Ossoff under 50%. Along with the National Republican Congressional Committee, the group will fill airwaves and computer screens with spots as the runoff approaches. But not all 2018 GOP candidate can count on similar levels of support.

There are 23 Republican incumbents in House districts Mrs. Clinton won. There are 47 in districts more Democratic than Georgia’s Sixth. At least 28 of these are similar to Rep. Price’s former stomping grounds: suburbs with white-collar, college-educated Republicans who are sometimes lukewarm toward Mr. Trump.

One astute operative suggested that Republican incumbents need to hold more town-hall meetings, not fewer. Let everybody vent, wear out the professional left-wing protesters, and lower the temperature. Lead voters to say, “I may not agree with everything my congressman does, but he listens, has good reasons for doing what he does, and cares.” It wouldn’t hurt if the GOP proves it can govern by passing a pro-growth tax cut and repealing and replacing ObamaCare.

It’s impossible at this stage to know who will control the House in 2019. The first round in Georgia didn’t clarify matters much.

But it’s undeniable that both parties are in trouble. Since January, the Republicans’ unfavorability rating is up eight points, according to the Pew Research Center. The Democrats’ is up six points. Public disgust with politicians, already sky-high, is getting worse. Maybe next year’s elections will be remembered as the lesser-of-two-evils midterm.

Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads and is the author of “The Triumph of William McKinley ” (Simon & Schuster, 2015).

Appeared in the Apr. 20, 2017, print edition.


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