Chin up Democrats, Georgia special election should give hope
© Getty

The final votes had yet to be counted when CNN cast its verdict on Georgia’s hotly contested special Congressional election Tuesday night. “Democrats Depressed,” the network’s homepage blared. Over at The Washington Post, Republican mega-lobbyist Ed Rogers declared the result “a yuge” – yes, “yuge” – “win for Trump.” Liberal New York Times columnist Frank Bruni called Democrats “demoralized yet again.” 

With headlines like that, one might think they were reading about last November’s presidential election, or at least a shocking Republican upset in a left-leaning state. The truth was almost the opposite: An upstart Democrat nearly defeated the Georgia secretary of state for a U.S. House seat last occupied by a Democrat during the Carter Administration. Rather than a triumph for Republicans, the results of Tuesday’s Georgia race,  and an overlooked but even more shocking election one state over, portend a wave election for Democrats in 2018.

ADVERTISEMENT
In Georgia, Secretary of State Karen Handel defeated first-time Democrat candidate Jon Ossoff by a four-point margin, 52 percent to 48 percent.. On its face, that’s a Republican victory: Handel, not Ossoff, is headed to Congress. But, despite their public celebrations, Republican strategists are surely unsettled by the result. After all, the seat’s most recent incumbent, Tom Price, won the district last November by an overwhelming 23 points. Tuesday’s special election only occurred because President Trump appointed Price, a doctor, to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, creating a vacancy.

 

While some of Price’s margin might be attributed to the inherent advantages of being an incumbent, a 19-point swing toward the Democrats in just eight months should send shockwaves through Republican strategy circles. That’s all the more true because Georgia’s 6th Congressional District is supposed to be relatively safe GOP territory: The respected Cook Partisan Voting Index estimates that Republicans hold an eight-point voter advantage over Democrats in the district. 

Only through the magic of media narratives could falling short of a major upset be “depressing” for Democrats. Democrats’ longshot hopes to take the seat rested mostly on Ossoff’s strong fundraising –

Democrats, including outside groups, poured well over $31 million into the race, compared to Republicans’ roughly $23 million and Trump’s narrow margin of victory in the district last November. Absent unrealistic expectations, the close contest between Ossoff, a 30-year-old first-time candidate who did not actually live in the district, and Handel, a powerful state official, would be recognized as ominous for Republicans.

Lost in the attention afforded to Georgia was a little-noticed special election next door. On Tuesday night in South Carolina, Republican Ralph Norman kept the state’s 5th Congressional District in Republican hands by defeating Democratic banker Archie Parnell. At first glance, that win is unremarkable, given that the seat had most recently been held by Mick Mulvaney, a Republican incumbent who won reelection last November by a 21-point margin. Mulvaney vacated the seat earlier this year to serve as President Trump’s budget director.

What is remarkable is that Norman, a six-term state representative, defeated his Democratic opponent by only three points, 51-48 – in a district where Trump beat Clinton by a whopping 19-point margin. Then consider that Democrats treated the race as an afterthought; the Democrats’ House campaign arm invested just $275,000 to support Parnell vs. $5 million to help Ossoff – and that the South Carolina legislature strategically redrew the 5th District in 2010 to ensure a conservative electorate. In light of those massive disadvantages, Parnell’s narrow loss should be the story of the night. And given how well President Trump performed in that district last year, the result should worry Republicans much more than the results out of Georgia. 

In the wake of Tuesday’s results, commentators have focused on Democrats’ losing streak across the four recent special elections: in races to replace Republican congressmen appointed to the Trump Administration, Democrats have lost by single-digit margins in Kansas, Montana, and now the Deep South. But there is a reason President Trump chose appointees from those districts: They were supposed to be safe GOP seats. Democrats were not supposed to have a chance in any.

Democrats need to gain a net 24 seats to take back the House in next year’s midterm elections. If, as in Georgia, the average U.S. House race swings 20 points toward the Democrat compared to 2016, Democrats will gain a net 70 seats, a big majority and a wildly aggressive target. But more realistic, if still ambitious, scenarios could yet turn the House blue. Democrats would pick up 25 House seats, and a bare majority, if the average U.S. Congressional district voters 13 points more Democratic than it did in 2016.

That’s a tall order, to be sure, but it’s one that could be feasible if a swath of nervous Republican incumbents retires or President Trump’s approval ratings remain mired in the mid-30s. If both stay true, the result may be akin to 2010, when a so-called wave election swept House Democrats from power in the wake of public opposition to ObamaCare.

A whole lot can happen between now and next November. In mid-2009, President Obama was still riding high, the political toll of ObamaCare only just becoming apparent. And in June of 2015, 17 months before the 2016 election, Daily Show host Jon Stewart hailed Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump Right way and wrong way Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy MORE’s entrance into the presidential race as a blessing for comedians and little more.

But fundamental political realignments can stick over the course of president’s term, especially if that president remains mired in scandal and continues to seem more focused on tweeting than policymaking. If the massive vote swings in Georgia and South Carolina are any indication, that realignment may be taking place across the country.

Adam Gerchick is a pollster and researcher with PSB, a global market research consultancy. His clients include Fortune 500 tech brands, trade and advocacy associations, and major film and music distributors.


Views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.