First, don’t believe the Democrat spin that “it should never have been this close.” The race featured 18 people of two parties on a single ballot. There were five mostly unknown Democrats, two mostly unknown independents, and eleven Republicans, more than half of whom were well known. The Democrats rallied to a 30 year old who lives outside the district and built up his positive name ID while the GOP field fought each other for three-quarters of the race. That is a standard dynamic in special elections like this.
Georgia has a rule that if you want to run for a different office than the one you are in and the different office’s start date is different from your current office, you must resign your current office. So Georgia, a thoroughly Republican state, has lots of elected officials who bide their time till the higher office seat opens, then they resign and run. They all think they are entitled. It created a mess. Yes, it should have been close given those dynamics.
Second, don’t believe the Republican spin that this was expected and they’re home free in the runoff. While I support Karen Handel and she is a friend, her campaign team has often lagged in generation of grassroots enthusiasm and she does not like to raise money. That said, she is so well known in the 6th, she could play the first stage of this race conservatively and did. Additionally, while the race was going to be close given the dynamics, Jon Ossoff did better than most people, myself included, expected. He outperformed the polling and did better than Hillary Clinton. Democrats are far more energized than Republicans and warning lights should be going off at the NRCC and NRSC right now. Had Ossoff gotten less than 45% of the vote, I would say you really cannot read anything into this. That he almost won is troubling for the GOP.
Third, don’t believe the White House spin that this was not a rebuke of the President. The more closely aligned a candidate was with President Trump, the worse that candidate did. Bob Gray, who was viewed as the Trump candidate, actually opposed Donald Trump vocally throughout the primaries and at one point was declared NeverTrump. But he ran as a partner for Trump. He did better than Bruce Levell who did coalitions work for President Trump in Georgia. He, in turn, did better than Amy Kremer who helped run a Trump related super PAC.
David Abroms, the candidate who vocally supported Evan McMullin and used McMullin’s consultant, outperformed most of the pro-Trump candidates.
Speaking of Abroms, Republicans would be wise to find a place for him and for Keith Grawert, one of the other candidates in the race. Both are candidates who could easily be positioned for broad appeal. I interviewed all but two of the Republicans and, though I supported Karen Handel because she is a friend and I thought the most viable candidate, Abroms and Grawert were the two candidates who really impressed me the most. If there is justice, they’ll both have bright futures in politics.
Lastly, Karen Handel is the perfect candidate for this district. She is a Republican who focused on fiscal conservatism over social conservatism during her elected career on the Fulton County Commission and in the Secretary of State’s office, but she is a social conservative nonetheless. She has been skeptical of President Trump, but willing to assist him in a conservative agenda. In Georgia, she ran against the establishment and the good old boys fighting corruption and crony capitalist deals.
The good old boys who run the GOP in Georgia do not care for Karen Handel because of these things, but they care enough to help get her to Washington. That will work to her advantage. The runoff is in June and it will shape up to be a general election style race.
Some reporters suggest Karen Handel is a Georgia version of Martha Coakley, who famously lost Ted Kennedy’s seat to a Republican. It is a convenient short hand for political reporters, but also not really true. Handel has routinely done well in the sixth congressional district in her winning stint as Secretary of State and even in her unsuccessful bids for Governor and Senator. That district has been the heart of her campaign operation and it has never really disappointed her.
She lives there and they know her, unlike Ossoff. Ossoff does have a fired up, enthusiastic base. But the GOP has a candidate who has some distance between herself and Trump and she fits the demographic of the district better than Ossoff. Republicans also now know they really must win this seat.
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