Peach State Beatdown: Can Handel Survive Ossoff Insurgency in GA-06?

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Jun 20, 2017 7:05 PM
Peach State Beatdown: Can Handel Survive Ossoff Insurgency in GA-06?

It looks like it’s going to be close folks—very close. Guy wrote about how Republican Karen Handel is surging at the last moment in the battle for Georgia’s sixth congressional district. Republican Congressman Tom Price, who won this district by 23 points in 2016, left to become President Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary. Democrat Jon Ossoff is running what appears to be a stellar campaign polling almost neck-and-neck with Handel. Almost $50 million is being spent on this race, with every Democratic consultant helping Ossoff in order to clinch a post-2016 win for the party. From the data crunchers, we have Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight warning to not read too much into the early vote.

Fulton, Cobb, and Dekalb counties make up the GA-06 district. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report noted the country targets Ossoff needs to hit in order to win. He’s reportedly pulling 15 percent of GOP voters in the district, which is significant—possibly enough to win. We shall see.

 Nate Silver has preliminary breakdowns of how this all could go down as well:

 Ossoff wins by 5 or more points. In this case, Republicans won’t really have a lot of excuses. Democrats will have substantially improved upon their margin from the first round and upon Hillary Clinton’s performance from 2016. And they’ll have done so on what will be considerably higher turnout than in round one, suggesting that their surprisingly good results in previous special elections such as Kansas 4 weren’t just a matter of a lackluster GOP turnout. By the metric we prefer — a 3-to-1 blend of the presidential vote in the last two elections — a 5-point Ossoff victory would be consistent with a national environment that leans Democratic by 14 or 15 points. If Democrats replicated those margins in the midterms next year, they’d flip dozens of GOP seats and very likely win control of the House.

We would note, however, that even with a 5-point Ossoff win, the Democratic overperformance relative to the presidential vote wouldn’t actually be any better than it was in Kansas 4 or Montana. In that sense, the results wouldn’t be all that surprising. Still, Republicans who had ridiculed Democrats for claiming “moral victories” in Kansas 4 and Montana would now have to recognize that they were part of a pattern of Democratic overperformance. That could change the calculus for Republicans as they try to decide how to behave toward Trump and on their health care bill.

 Ossoff wins by 1 to 4 points. This would obviously not be a good result for Republicans, but it’s not quite as scary as the one I outlined above. Given that Georgia 6 is an unusual district — highly educated, and traditionally very Republican, but also lukewarm on Trump — I don’t think we should spend all that much time parsing the results provided that they’re within a couple of points either way. In general, any such result would be broadly consistent with what we think we know about the overall political environment, which is that it leans Democratic but that it’s only roughly even-money whether Democrats take over the House next year because of how the vote is distributed.

That doesn’t mean Republicans would react calmly to such an outcome, however; Republicans have been pretty open about the fact that they’d take a loss as a bad sign. Arguably, that’s because the GOP under-reacted to previous evidence of voter anger, such as in the form of the Montana and Kansas results or Trump’s poor approval ratings. This would not be a good result for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or other people who want to pass the American Health Care Act.

Recount territory (margin within 1 point). I’ll just point out that any time the polling average shows almost an exact tie, a recount — or at least a result where the outcome might not be known for several days — is a nontrivial possibility. Georgia does not have automatic recounts, but if I’m reading its rules correctly, both candidates and election officials have the right to request one when the margin is within 1 percentage point in either direction. Given the historic error margins in House race polling, there’s something like a 15 percent to 20 percent chance of the race turning out to be that close. A recount would almost certainly be a nasty affair in this sort of political climate.

Handel wins by 1 to 4 points. This is sort of the mirror image of the case where Ossoff wins narrowly: a disappointing result for Democrats given that they had dreams of winning the seat but not really all that much of a change from the status quo (especially considering that it would be right in line with the results from the first round of the Georgia election). To put it another way, it’s a result that neither party ought to be all that happy with.   

With that said, the effect on Democratic morale can’t be overlooked. The party has gone four-and-a-half years — since Obama’s re-election in 2012 — without a big electoral feel-good moment. Given that Ossoff once held a (modest) lead in the polls, Georgia 6 will have seemed to slip from their grasp, and there will be recriminations about whether Ossoff chose the right strategy, whether he was the right candidate, whether Georgia 6 was money well-spent, whether last week’s Virginia shootings shifted the result, and so on. This decline in morale might be temporary, given that Trump does plenty to motivate the base, but it would come at an inopportune time as Democrats are seeking to gather momentum to block the GOP health care bill.

Handel wins by 5 points. This would be a legitimately worrying result for Democrats and a relieving one for Republicans. Yes, the district is traditionally Republican, and Democrats would have other, better results to point to, such as in Kansas. But, still, the backsliding from round one — when Ossoff had 48 percent of the vote and came close to avoiding a runoff — would be disturbing for Democrats and might suggest that Republicans could prevail even in Trump-skeptical districts by playing to their base’s partisan instincts and motivating them to turn out. And, as Dave Weigel points out, it might also rekindle questions about whether polls overrate Democrats, as they did in both 2014 and 2016, since no poll has shown Handel ahead by a margin of more than a couple of points.

While the GOP has been hammering Ossoff for not living in the district, neither have a lot of residents of GA-06. Yes, they may live here, but around 75 percent of the electorate is transplants, usually younger and more liberal Americans that have flocked to the area due to the job market. The demographics are changing. So, when an ad slams Ossoff for not living here, it has little to no impact. Only about one-third of the people in GA-06 are second or third generation. Handel will have to squeeze every Republican vote out of Fulton and Cobb County to pull this out. As with any election, it’s about turnout. Grab some popcorn and open some beers—this could be a long night. 

UPDATE: Cook’s Wasserman–High turnout could help Handel:

 What’s the practical effect of the historic turnout in Georgia? At first, Democrats might be tempted to believe it’s a great sign for Ossoff, because activists flooded his campaign with cash. But, ironically, high turnout could be helping Handel. That’s because low-turnout elections tend to benefit the more fired-up party, and that’s the Democrats.

 In April’s Kansas special election, Democrat James Thompson came within 7 points of a shocking upset in a district that President Trump won by 27 points, in part because the race got so little attention and so many Republicans didn’t vote. Voters cast a measly 121,000 votes there, compared with 276,000 last fall.

 But I’d estimate that about three-quarters of the 331,000 voters who went to the polls last November are likely to cast ballots in today’s special election. If Handel pulls this out, a big reason will be that fewer Republicans skipped the race. The downside for Republicans is that turnout won’t be that high everywhere in November 2018, and the enthusiasm gap could be wider.

 Also, unlike some states, GA-06 voters who skipped the April 18 election can also vote in the runoff tonight. These voters tend to trend to the right on the issues. Out of the 140,000 early ballots cast, some 23-25,000 of those votes came from people who sat April 18 out. 

UPDATE II: Is that dam going to break? That’s what the pollsters and election analysts are waiting for regarding Ossoff since that was supposedly going to happen. With 50 percent of the precincts reporting on FiveThirtyEight, Handel is leading Ossoff 52/47. Over at The New York Times, 39 percent in, Handel leads 51/48. It’s still very close. The last few minutes have not been good for Ossoff.  It seems the GOP came home tonight, but anything can happen. There's a lot of chatter about the mail in ballots possibly saving Ossoff, but it looks like he's going to need a lot of them to stay alive. 

UPDATE III: On those mail ballots, uh--not good for Ossoff, but Wasserman of Cook Political Report said he will know for sure when more Dekalb County Election Day votes are tallied. Concerning those mailed ballots, 27,138 as of yesterday. 

UPDATE IV: Wasserman said Ossoff needed to win 80 percent of those mailed ballots; he only won 73 percent those in Dekalb. Game over?

UPDATE V: Game Over, Ossoff.