The Georgia 6th Special Doesn’t Matter That Much

There’s a lot in D.R. Tucker’s weekend column on the special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district that I don’t agree with, but there’s one thing that I think he is definitely right about. If Karen Handel loses a seat that once belonged to Tom Price and Newt Gingrich, it will make some incumbent Republicans worry again about losing their seats to a Democrat.

Too many of them feel immune to that threat and spend all their time worrying about avoiding or defeating a primary challenger from their own party. One reason that would be important is that it would create a rump of Republicans in the House who think creating separation from Trump might be in their self-interest. That’s certainly a prerequisite for any future impeachment hearings if they’re going to have the potential to result in Trump’s removal from office.

Yet, for this purpose, I don’t actually think it should matter whether the Democrat in the 6th, Jon Ossoff, wins by a thousand votes or loses by a thousand votes. The overall message to other Republicans should be the same either way, and that’s that they can lose in the era of Trump if their constituents are well-educated enough.

No doubt, though, the message will be louder and resonate longer and more powerfully if Ossoff captures the seat. Tucker is correct that an Ossoff victory will make it somewhat more likely that Trump will be held accountable. I just don’t want to overstate the stakes here or the real, practical impact the result is likely to have.

More important is something I mentioned in a post last week and that Mike Allen decided to observe today:

Beyond his base voters, Trump has an even bigger potential problem looming with his base in Congress. While Republican lawmakers won’t say it publicly, it’s widely known if they could pick between President Pence and President Trump, the Vice President would win 90% of the vote among the GOP.

Bill Clinton benefited from a large number of true fans and believers among elected Democrats when he survived impeachment. Trump has few authentic fans or loyalists in Congress. So if things take a turn for the worse, GOP flight could come fast and furious — since the end result would be President Pence.

It’s hard to find any Republican willing to admit as much on the record, but almost all elected Republicans would vastly prefer to work with Mike Pence than Donald Trump. That obstacle to impeachment is already met, and what’s holding them back is worry about what their base voters will think. Republican lawmakers don’t just need support among their base to win primaries, they also need them to turn out in general elections, especially in districts like Georgia’s 6th. So, even if they do begin to worry more about losing to a Democrat, they still have to stay in the good graces of the Trump supporters in their communities. There is no easy way out for them, and turning strongly against Trump will be perilous so long as Trump retains strong support among the folks who voted for him.

One person who agrees with Tucker about the critical importance of the result in the special election is Stuart Rothenberg who writes: “Democratic strategists may hate the idea that they must win the June 20 special election in Georgia’s 6th District, but that doesn’t make it any less true.” I am not particularly convinced by his argument, either, as it relies heavily on nebulous concepts like “momentum,” “energy” and “signs of progress.”

Rothenberg readily acknowledges that a Democratic defeat would have little or short-lived impact on fund-raising or candidate recruitment. Instead, he puts heavy emphasis on “narrative” and the need for Democrats to stop the circular firing squad. Personally, I almost completely discount both of those ideas.

As to the narrative, I can safely say it’s bullshit to build a narrative around the idea the Democrats are either doomed or on the path to victory based on a result that is going to be pretty close to 50-50. A narrow loss or a narrow win should have exactly the same lesson, which is that historically Republican districts in affluent well-educated suburbs are now competitive battlefields. I don’t dispute that a narrative will be created around the result and that it will have some influence, but I discount how much influence it will have. For one thing, a falsely positive narrative is as likely to screw over the Democrats as it is to give them a big edge in energy and unity. If you doubt this, ask Hillary Clinton.

I also refuse to concede that a victory will end the finger-pointing among Democrats. As soon as Ossoff is done giving his victory speech, the swords will come out to take credit for his victory. Some progressives will point to all the money they raised for him. More establishment Democrats will point out how he played to his district by rejecting single-payer health care, promising not to raise taxes on the rich, and keeping his distance from Nancy Pelosi.

Outside Atlanta on Friday, Jon Ossoff offered a decidedly un-Sanders-like vision of the future in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, a conservative-leaning patchwork of office plazas and upscale malls, where voters attended his campaign events wearing golf shirts and designer eyewear.

In a special election that has become the most expensive House race in history, Mr. Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide, presented himself as essentially anti-ideological. Greeting suburban parents near a playground and giving a pep talk to volunteers, he stressed broadly popular policies like fighting air and water pollution and preserving insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

Bucking the left, Mr. Ossoff said in an interview that he would not support raising income taxes, even for the wealthy, and opposed “any move” toward a single-payer health care system. Attacked by Republicans for his ties to national liberals, Mr. Ossoff said he had not yet given “an ounce of thought” to whether he would vote for Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, in a future ballot for speaker.

Any time the Sanders wing suggests that Ossoff’s victory demonstrates that they’ve found the secret to winning in red areas the response will come that, back in April when it might have mattered, Sanders wouldn’t vouch for Ossoff’s progressive credentials.

If Ossoff wins, you can be sure that his non-progressive stances will be ignored by the left. If he loses, those unorthodoxies will be blamed.

The way I’d sum this up is to say that the fact that the election is competitive is what really matters. The actual outcome won’t give us much more information about the prospects for other Democrats to win in similar districts in 2018. Should Ossoff win, he will immediately become one of the most vulnerable members of a 435-person legislative body where he has no seniority and serves in the minority. His immediate ability to accomplish anything will be approximately nil. A far more important election is happening in Virginia’s gubernatorial races where Tom Perriello is trying to defeat Ralph Northam and become the Democrats’ standard bearer. You can read my interview with Perriello here.

Should Perriello win the nomination and go on to win the governorship, he’ll have almost infinitely more power than Ossoff. Moreover, he will take his anti-monopoly concepts and put them into practice. During the campaign, you’ll see two different versions of the future of the Democratic Party. While Perriello is working on issues related to consolidation, automation, utilities regulation, and antitrust enforcement, up in New Jersey a former Goldman Sachs executive will be looking to move into Drumthwacket. I don’t know what kind of campaign Phil Murphy will run, but I can assure you it will be quite different from Perriello’s.

No matter how the upcoming elections go, the governor’s races will be far more consequential than any House race in shaping the future of the Democratic Party and the country. It’d be nice to win Georgia’s 6th and it would probably do a lot more good than harm. But the party already did better in well-educated suburbs last November and it didn’t prevent a catastrophic loss from the top to the bottom of the ticket. The health and future prospects for the left lie elsewhere, and the Democrats taking an Ossoff win as evidence to the contrary could result in a pyrrhic victory.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.