Sabato's Crystal Ball

Overtime in Georgia

GA-6 special election provides silver linings for both parties

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball April 19th, 2017

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Note: This piece has been updated to reflect the final results in GA-6 as of Wednesday morning, April 19.

The first round jungle primary in the nationally-watched special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District offered something for both parties. Republicans are pleased that they forced a runoff, and Karen Handel (R), the former Georgia secretary of state who has been foiled in two recent statewide primaries, probably has the best track record of the various Republicans who competed for what amounted to the GOP nomination there.

Meanwhile, former congressional aide Jon Ossoff (D) wasn’t able to get a majority, but his 48.1% of the vote blows away recent Democratic House performance in the district: Since GA-6 was redrawn following the decennial census, the three Democratic challengers to now-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price (R), the former occupant of the seat, only won an average of 35.9% of the vote. So this was a big improvement on that, although Ossoff has raised an eye-popping amount of money (potentially eight figures now after he reported $8.3 million as of the end of March) and is clearly a real candidate, while Price’s previous opponents were not. Ossoff also outperformed polls that showed him only in the low 40s. Now we have something much better than polls — we have actual results. The combined Democratic vote in the district was about 49%, while the combined GOP vote was about 51% — close enough that it’s hard to see either side starting with a clear advantage.

Now that we have a runoff, we’re keeping our rating at Toss-up.

Ossoff slightly overperformed Hillary Clinton’s 46.8% showing in the district, which is a good sign for Democrats as they try to compete in heavily Republican suburban districts like GA-6 where Donald Trump vastly underperformed what Republican presidential candidates are used to winning (President Trump won the district by 1.5 points after Mitt Romney carried it by 23). But again, all of the caveats we expressed last week about this special election remain.

The race now changes: Democratic outside groups, who have largely refrained from running paid media thanks to Ossoff’s war chest and the lack of a clear Republican opponent, can now start attacking Handel, and GOP outside groups, who have already spent more than $4 million attacking Ossoff, will keep hammering away. Handel too is now freed up to go after Ossoff and consolidate GOP fundraising both inside and outside of the district.

The runoff is not even until June 20, so this has the makings of a very expensive and long slog. We also have no idea if the runoff will produce the same kind of turnout we saw on Tuesday, which at about 192,000 votes was not that far off from the most recent midterm House turnout of about 210,000 votes. In what is becoming a familiar pattern, Democrats dominated the early voting while Republicans roared back on Election Day: Ossoff only dropped below 50%, the runoff threshold, after some long-delayed results were reported late Tuesday night. This is another reminder to be cautious about drawing conclusions from the first votes that get reported in states with substantial early voting because those results may be too Democratic leaning. Runoff turnout often falls from a first-round election but we have to imagine that interest will remain strong. A recent exception was the epic Mississippi Republican Senate primary runoff in June 2014. Incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R) survived a stiff challenge by increasing turnout in the runoff (and attracting some crossover Democratic votes).

Meanwhile, keep an eye on the special House election looming in Montana on May 25. Musician Rob Quist (D) has raised an impressive sum (more than $1 million), and he’ll need every cent of it to truly threaten Greg Gianforte (R), the wealthy businessman who ran a credible challenge against Gov. Steve Bullock (D) last year. Leaving nothing to chance, national Republicans are starting to spend in the race, and national Democrats may get involved as well. We’ve got that race at Likely Republican for now.