By Jim Ellis
June 21, 2017 — It’s difficult to characterize a Republican candidate winning a Republican congressional district as an “upset”, but Karen Handel’s victory in the north Atlanta suburbs last night, at least in terms of the money spent, polling, and how the media covered the campaign, seems to qualify for such a description.
From a huge turnout of 259,622 voters, just about 58 percent of the entire registered 6th district universe and almost 50,000 more than participated in the last regular mid-term election, Handel, a former Georgia Secretary of State, topped Democratic filmmaker and ex-congressional aide Jon Ossoff by a 52-48 percent margin, a spread of 9,702 votes when all of the ballots were counted. She retains for the Republicans Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s former congressional seat.
Simultaneously, over 200 miles away via Interstate 85 northeast of Atlanta in central South Carolina, Republican Ralph Norman claimed the evening’s other special congressional election with a surprisingly close 51-49 percent win over Democrat Archie Parnell from a small turnout of 87,840 voters. Office of Management & Budget Director Mick Mulvaney left open this seat to assume his national position.
The GA-6 contest, which became a national election because of the record amounts of money spent — an aggregate total that will likely exceed $50 million when the final accounting is published, and where the Democratic leadership virtually invested their entire special election season budget and emphasis — is now a crushing defeat for the party and what is termed the “anti-Trump resistance.”
According to the latest available Federal Election Commission reports, for the period ending May 31, Ossoff raised over $23.6 million for his campaign committee, the overwhelming majority in small contributions from places other than Georgia. Reports suggest that the final total will exceed $33 million, or 10 times more than what a candidate usually spends for a race of this nature. By contrast, during the same period, South Carolina’s Parnell, who performed better than Ossoff, raised only $763,000.
Aside from being another defeat for the national media, the polling industry suffered another black eye in Georgia, since few survey research firms projected a Handel victory. Though many detected the race growing closer at the end and momentum building in the Republican’s favor, 13 of the 20 publicly released GA-6 special election polls projected Ossoff as leading with three others finding a tie. Only four polls found the eventual winner holding the lead.
Among the latter four was the Trafalgar Group, a little known pollster that was the only survey research entity to correctly predict President Trump’s surprise victories in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin during the November general election. In Trafalgar’s June 17-18 survey of 1,100 GA-6 respondents, they correctly forecast a Handel victory, showing a 51-49 percent spread just under the 52-48 percent actual margin.
Clearly the Democratic leadership, particularly Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), will now come under internal fire for their targeting decisions.
Basically putting “all of their eggs in one basket”, the leaders eschewed the other congressional contests, SC-5, MT-AL, and KS-4, in order to invest heavily in GA-6. Their reasoning was that President Trump only carried what should be a safe Republican district with a 1.5 percentage margin, which they believed was a harbinger to a changing district.
In the end, Ossoff, despite record spending on his behalf, lost by four percentage points. Where the Democratic candidates received comparatively little to no support from the national party apparatus: Kansas’ James Thompson, Montana’s Rob Quist, and South Carolina’s Parnell, the Republican victory spreads were six points, six, and two, respectively.
Much more analysis will come from last night’s events, but the end result could not have been worse for the Democrats. Badly missing in Georgia and conceding what now appears to have been a potential opportunity in South Carolina will cause potentially long-lasting reverberations for the party’s national political brain trust.