What We Can Learn From the History of Georgia’s Sixth District

It is always interesting to look at the analysis and spin that follows an important special election. The one in Georgia’s 6th congressional district yesterday might wind up being the mother of all special elections when it comes to analysis/spin.

Of course Republicans are claiming a big win. But that is based merely on stopping Jon Ossoff from winning outright with 48 percent of the vote, leading to a runoff in June between he and Republican Karen Handel, who won about 20 percent of the vote. Josh Kraushaar joins them in emphasizing the downside of those results for Democrats.

Demo­crat­ic act­iv­ists spent the last month pour­ing their time, en­ergy, and pas­sion be­hind a 30-year-old film­maker, Jon Os­soff, who rep­res­en­ted the hopes and dreams of the anti-Trump Left. They turned the low-key former Hill staffer in­to a polit­ic­al celebrity, helped him raise re­cord sums of money for a House race, and even baited Pres­id­ent Trump in­to un­leash­ing a tweet­storm on the off-year con­gres­sion­al con­test.

The re­turn on their in­vest­ment: a can­did­ate who turned in a sol­id, un­spec­tac­u­lar per­form­ance that places him in a run­off against former Geor­gia Sec­ret­ary of State Kar­en Han­del on June 20. Os­soff fin­ished sev­er­al points shy of the 50 per­cent needed to avoid a run­off. Han­del nearly doubled the sup­port of her closest Re­pub­lic­an rival, a re­spect­able show­ing for the GOP polit­ic­al vet­er­an.

Personally, I’d have trouble defining 20 percent of the vote as “a respectable showing for the GOP political veteran.” I’m sure the counter-argument would be to point to a divided Republican field. But isn’t that yet another example of the kind of Republican disunity we’re seeing on a national level? The spin could just as easily be: why are Republicans so divided?’

Josh Marshall has a totally different take.

The reality is this is an incredibly strong showing. It’s a strong GOP district. This is a dramatic shift in the Democrats’ direction. And Ossoff still has a solid shot in the run off…

We don’t know where the country will be in 18 months. But to the extent you can draw a line between tonight and election day 2018, the results of this race and the Kansas race taken together point to a anti-GOP wave election in 2018.

In order to develop an understanding of what yesterday’s election might portend for 2018, it is important to step back and take a historical look at that district. It is the House seat that was held by Newt Gingrich for 20 years, then Johnny Isakson for 6 years and most recently Tom Price for 12 years. What is interesting to note is that Gingrich won the seat in 1978 after 20-year incumbent Democrat Jack Flynt retired. That was the year that the realignment between Democrats and Republicans following the success of the Civil Rights Movement finally dislodged the historically Democratic hold on local members of the district.

Another historical reference point being made by many is that in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump only won the district by 1.5 percent — indicating that Georgia’s 6th might actually be a swing district. But in 2012, Mitt Romney won it by 23 percent and John McCain by 26 percent in 2008. It could be that the closeness of the presidential race in 2016 was just a one-off in this suburban Atlanta district due to Donald Trump’s particularly noxious campaign. Or it could be that we are witnessing another realignment with a very red district starting to swing.

Which one of those possibilities turns out to be true for Georgia’s 6th District won’t be answered by the runoff between Ossoff and Handel in June. But that one will surely be close, and could reveal the kind of realignment that is underway in other suburban districts.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.