The big question in Georgia’s special election: Is the Trump effect a threat to Republicans beyond the president?
To gauge the importance to Republicans of Tuesday’s special election for a vacant House seat in the Atlanta suburbs, look no further than President Trump’s Twitter feed.
“The super Liberal Democrat in the Georgia Congressioal [sic] race tomorrow wants to protect criminals, allow illegal immigration and raise taxes!” the president declared Monday. He followed up with three additional tweets on Tuesday morning exhorting Republicans to vote.
Trump’s ire toward Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff was not necessarily accurate — he hasn’t run as a liberal Democrat and hasn’t espoused raising taxes or the other views the president attached to him. But the fact that Trump has gotten involved points to the concern the White House and the GOP have about the race.
Democrats have coalesced around Ossoff and — if polls are accurate — have brought him close to the edge of winning the seat outright in Tuesday’s all-candidates primary by earning over 50% of the vote.
That would flip the seat, a longtime Republican stronghold held until recently by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, from Republican to Democrat. By itself, it wouldn’t greatly reduce the GOP advantage in the House, but it would put Democrats on the offensive — and Republicans on defense — as the 2018 congressional contests near.
Even the scenario that polls suggest is more likely, in which Ossoff falls just short of a majority, setting in motion a runoff election on June 20 between the top two finishers, underscores how Trump’s election has scrambled the political predilections of districts like Georgia’s 6th.
Price won this district by more than 23 percentage points in November. Trump, however, eked out just a 1.5-percentage-point victory, not only 20 points fewer than Price, but also significantly behind the 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
That means the district was a clear marker for one of the less-noticed demographic shifts in the presidential contest.
Much attention has been lavished on Trump’s strong showing in exurban and rural areas across the country, where once solidly Democratic and blue-collar voters sided with the Republican nominee.
While that was enough to secure his electoral college victory, it came at a price: turning moderate suburban districts like Georgia’s 6th more Democratic than they previously had been.
Tuesday’s election will test whether the Trump effect poses a threat to Republicans beyond himself, even to those running the sort of conventional GOP campaigns seen in the special-election race.
Republicans are counting on the district reverting to its normal behavior — if not on Tuesday, when its vote is split among multiple candidates, then in a runoff.
The presidential contest “was an outcome driven almost solely by the particular personalities involved,” said longtime Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who is working for the GOP candidate that most polls had in second place, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel. “A more traditional Republican running a more traditional Republican campaign should reset the outcome.”
He added an important caveat, however: “Who knows what the impact will be of a highly energized Democratic base?”
Ossoff has been the unlikely beneficiary of that high energy. A 30-year-old former congressional aide and filmmaker, he has mined Democratic distaste for Trump nationally into a lavish campaign, raising more than $8 million by the last accounting — a figure that vaulted the first-time candidate into the ranks of Congress’ best fundraisers and financed a frenzy of ads and campaign activity.
The vast majority of Ossoff’s money has come from outside the district, a factor that has been used as a predictable sledgehammer by Republicans, who have also hit Ossoff on his youth and a prior job as a filmmaker for the cable channel Al Jazeera.
In contrast to Trump’s characterization of him in his tweet, Ossoff has gone out of his way to present himself as anything but a flamethrower, lest he reinforce the district’s Republican bent.
“Folks here are excited now for fresh leadership presenting a substantive message about local economic development and talking about core values,” he offered blandly in a recent interview. “They are tired of partisan politics.”
Yet partisan politics and Democratic rage define today’s political environment, which has been clear in the special elections made necessary by Trump appointments to senior positions in his administration.
Last week, Democrat James Thompson finished less than 7 percentage points behind Republican Ron Estes in the special election for Kansas’ 4th Congressional District, one far more red than Georgia’s contested district. Trump had won the Kansas seat by 27 percentage points.
The gap between Trump’s showing and Estes’ finish fanned Democratic hopes that a groundswell of fervor could prove more successful in more closely contested districts, such as the one in Georgia.
That has raised the stakes dramatically for Democrats: The Kansas race was not winnable in almost anyone’s estimation, but the Georgia seat is seen as a toss-up.
Winning could mean a continued invigoration of Democratic activists, a continued boom in donations and, most importantly, serve to encourage potential Democratic candidates in districts seen as unwinnable just a few months ago.
A Democratic loss could restore confidence among Republicans, suggest an effective course to blunt Trump-inspired anger in future races and stall any sense of Democratic momentum leading into two additional special House contests in May, and the 2018 elections.
The party out of power typically tries to project midterm elections as national referendums on the party in power — and Trump’s presidency has given Democrats ammunition to spare in their efforts this spring.
A survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center offered a downcast assessment for Republicans.
Trump’s job approval rating stood at 39%; 54% of Americans disapproved of how he’s handled the presidency. In polls dating back to the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan, no president has done worse than 29% disapproval, Pew researchers said.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin was even less popular than Trump, with 29% giving him a favorable job rating. Both the Republican and Democratic parties were unpopular, but Republicans remained at a lower ebb, with 57% of Americans disapproving of them.
Those findings put added pressure on Republicans to block Ossoff from winning the majority vote Tuesday — and to coalesce, once Tuesday ends, around the highest-ranking Republican.
A win in June would restore a sense of equanimity, at least in this one district, pollster Ayres said: “It would clearly indicate that Republican candidates running normal Republican campaigns can continue to be successful in the Trump era.”
A Democratic win, he countered, “would shake up our political calculations and our political expectations.”
“This is a strong Republican district and has been so for years. I don’t expect that to happen.”
5:20 a.m.: This article was updated with information about additional tweets by Trump.
This article was first published at 4 a.m.
Get Group Therapy
Life is stressful. Our weekly mental wellness newsletter can help.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.