The Corner

Politics & Policy

Brace Yourselves, the Special Election Spin Is Coming

The upcoming special congressional election in Georgia’s sixth district being so close is that it scrambles the traditional preemptive spin that both parties deploy before a special election. 

After a special election, the winning side claims it is a harbinger; the losing side insists it is a meaningless fluke, a confluence of unusual circumstances and low turnout. But because tomorrow’s race is so close, neither party knows which spin to pre-deploy.

Are special elections often omens or signals of a wave election to come? The short answer is, “it depends.” Up until May 19, 2010, one could have looked at the six special U.S. House elections so far that cycle and concluded Democrats were doing fine; Democrats were six for six in mostly friendly districts. Sure, Scott Brown had won the special Senate election in Massachusetts, but Democrats could somewhat plausibly argue that Martha Coakley was a spectacularly tin-eared candidate.

But then on May 22, Republican Charles Djou enjoyed an upset victory in Hawaii’s First District, and Republicans went on to win the three other special House elections in the cycle (two of which were held on Election Day 2010).

If Democrat Jon Ossoff wins tomorrow, does it mean the Republicans will have a lousy 2018?

There are plenty of districts more competitive than this one, so it would be a big red flashing warning sign for Republicans. Karen Handel hasn’t made many errors — admittedly, with Greg Gianforte body-slamming a reporter the day before the election, the bar for “serious error” has been raised — and she’s not a Trump clone. She’s the kind of candidate who could and should win this district easily in a “normal” political environment.

A Handel loss might be a sign that it’s getting more and more difficult for down-ticket Republicans to distinguish themselves from Trump. On Election Day 2016, Trump barely won in this district, while the incumbent Republican (now HHS Secretary) Tom Price won by 23 points. Trump won a lot of places in 2016 that Republicans hadn’t won in the past two cycles, but he also performed worse in some traditionally GOP-leaning areas — mostly white suburbs where a lot of voters have four-year degrees, like Georgia’s sixth district. If Ossoff wins, Democrats will have reason to think they can win in the suburbs in 2018, and 37 House seats — mostly white suburban districts — grew significantly “bluer” from 2012 to 2016. Democrats will come out of Georgia convinced they have a real shot at making Nancy Pelosi the Speaker of the House again.

On the other hand, this race has seen more than $50 million in spending, a gargantuan sum that will be impossible to replicate on a national scale in the run-up to the 2018 midterms. And while fortunes have been spent on both sides, Democrats have an advantage:

Still, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent nearly $5 million on TV ads boosting his campaign or slamming Handel, while other left-leaning groups chipped in about $1 million more. In all, left-leaning groups and Ossoff combined for about $2 million more in ad spending than Handel and conservative allies during the runoff phase.

If Karen Handel wins, it’s yet another case where Democrats felt they had a fired-up grassroots and as much money as a candidate could ever hope for… and fell short.