By Jim Ellis
April 20, 2017 — Democrat Jon Ossoff came within a relative whisker of capturing the 6th District special election contest last night against 17 other candidates. In an election night that featured a laboriously slow count from Fulton County, Georgia, which experienced technical problems throughout the day, Ossoff tallied 48.1 percent of the vote, just two points away from winning the seat.
Turnout was unusually high for a special election, and the 6th will likely have the highest participation factor of the five special congressional contests occurring throughout the early summer. With the vote totals still a bit sketchy because of the Fulton County problems, and final tallies potentially changing, it appears that just over 192,000 voters will have cast ballots. Compare this to the 28,731 who voted in the California special congressional election on April 4, and the 120,897 participants in the Kansas special held last week. In the regular 2016 general election, 326,005 individuals voted in the congressional election.
Karen Handel, the Republican former Secretary of State placed a solid second and advances to the June 20 run-off election with Ossoff. Her percentage of just about 20 percent almost doubled the vote of the third place finisher, businessman and local city councilman Bob Gray.
Most of the polls released before the special jungle primary appeared flawed because they were not listing all of the candidates. Thus, there was some potential that the surveys over-stated Ossoff’s strength, but such was not the case. They also consistently showed the four competitive Republicans are closely bunched together in low double-digits, but Handel distinctly out-performed most of those estimates.
The Opinion Savvy organization, which twice surveyed the district and returned very similar numbers in both polls, virtually nailed the final result. They were the only pollster that tested all candidates, and correctly gauged the four viable Republicans. Each time they found Handel holding a discernible second place edge while the other survey firms saw a virtual toss-up among the four GOP contenders vying for advancement.
While only former state Sen. Dan Moody (R) was able to bring over $2 million to his campaign, the others, including Handel, did not raise impressive sums and they were in the paltry range when compared to Ossoff’s campaign that obtained approximately $9 million. The Democratic effort featured huge small donor numbers coming from all over the country.
Though the Republican candidates did not set the fundraising world on fire – Handel, for example, was only in the $500,000 range — their outside organizations such as the Congressional Leadership Fund (loosely affiliated with Speaker Paul Ryan), the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Ending Spending Super PAC, and the Club for Growth combined to spend almost $8 million, the vast majority in trying to create a negative image of candidate Ossoff. Their spending was likely the principle reason that Ossoff was held under the 50 percent mark.
This race, which has already attracted great national attention, will intensify to a greater degree over the next two months. Ossoff proved a bit stronger a candidate than even projections indicated, while Handel’s track record since she left the Secretary of State’s office has not been particularly impressive.
While placing first in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary, she lost the run-off to then-US Rep. Nathan Deal, who would then go onto win the general election. In 2014, she entered the US Senate race, but failed to qualify for the run-off, losing to both David Perdue, the eventual winner, and then-Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Savannah). She now attracts only 20 percent in what should be a reliably Republican district, trailing the Democrat by more than 54,000 votes when the final tallies are eventually posted.
Still, the combined Republican vote totaled 51.0 percent of those voting last night, versus 48.8 percent combined for the Democratic candidates. The two Independents accounted for the rest. Pre-election surveys showed Ossoff with a slight lead over Handel when the two were isolated.
It now becomes clear that the June 20 run-off will focus on voter turnout. The Ossoff operation took full advantage of early voting, where he dominated the vote totals, which almost propelled him to outright victory. The Republican turnout machine will have to operate on all cylinders in order to rebound here in June.