Georgia’s Extra-Special Election Enters the Final Stretch

It’s been a long, mean campaign between Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff. Photo: Branden Camp/AP

It’s the final hours before the long-awaited special runoff election in the Sixth Congressional District of Georgia between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. Early voting ended Friday. All the ads that are going to run are in the can. If there is a registered voter who has somehow not been reached by ads, direct mail, or phone calls and knocks on the door from one of the two campaigns or the “outside groups” (especially on the Republican side) helping them, they are probably living in an impenetrable fortress or are far off the grid. For a while now, this has been the most expensive House race in history, and now the only question is how high a level the final spending will reach. 

If you don’t live in GA-06 and have missed all the fun, this is a special election to replace HHS Secretary Tom Price. The district, in the north Atlanta suburbs, is historically Republican (it was once represented by Newt Gingrich and then by now-Senator Johnny Isakson). But it became a Democratic target this year mostly because Donald Trump only defeated Hillary Clinton there by one percentage point. GA-06 also has an unusually high percentage of college-educated voters, a poor Trump demographic. In the first round, novice candidate (though he is a former congressional staffer) Ossoff came tantalizingly close to winning without a runoff, with 48 percent of the vote. For her part, Handel soundly defeated a large field of Republicans to advance with 20 percent of the vote. Total Republican voting edged total Democratic voting slightly; that and the fact that Ossoff’s strategy was to win a first-round knockout made Handel the slight favorite heading toward June 20. 

But Ossoff has not lost momentum and raised an ungodly amount of money (mostly in small-dollar batches) — how much we will not know until after the voting, but his campaign had spent $7 million on the runoff alone three weeks ago — which Team Handel has more or less matched with money from national Republican groups. 

There have been two candidate debates, and lots of attacks and counterattacks in ads (again, especially on the GOP side, where national groups have spent millions depicting mild-mannered centrist nerd Jon Ossoff as some sort of anarchist flower child whose two favorite people are Nancy Pelosi and Kathy Griffin). There were even threats of violence against both candidates in the wake of this week’s congressional shootings in Alexandria. And some Republicans are succumbing to the temptation to use the shootings themselves part of the ongoing smear of Ossoff as the puppet of “radicals.” The GOP chair from an congressional district adjacent to GA-06 publicly said the shootings were going to be a game-changer for Handel due to voter fatigue with “left-wing extremism.” And then there was this last-minute ad running on Fox News in Atlanta, from an obscure right-wing PAC, explicitly linking Ossoff to unnamed “leftists” who are “endorsing and applauding” the shootings:

Both Ossoff and Handel have condemned this particularly vicious smear, though the Republican has not complied with the Democrat’s request to call for the ad to be taken down.

To the extent there have been “issues” in the runoff campaign, they involved Ossoff’s attacks on the American Health Care Act (which Handel tepidly defended), Handel’s minor gaffe in saying she opposed a “livable wage,” and the two candidates’ obviously different attitudes toward Donald Trump. On this last point, Handel has accepted fundraising help from Trump and some personal campaigning from both Mike Pence and Tom Price but is hardly wearing a MAGA cap; she understands the deciding votes in this election may come from Republicans who don’t much care for the president. This is why she has spent almost no time talking about Trump, even as her team pounds the district with ads reminding voters Ossoff is a Democrat. 

But now it all comes down to voter mobilization. And one of the imponderables is how many voters are left to be mobilized on Election Day, and who they are. 

Georgia has relatively robust early-voting opportunities; 56,000 votes, a bit more than a fourth of the total vote, were cast early in the first round. Early voting for the runoff has hit an astonishing 140,000. The odds are very high that Ossoff is not matching the 62 percent of early votes he won in the first round; indeed, there’s evidence Handel’s making up some ground in the final week of early voting. The percentage of early voters who have voted in past Republican primaries (the only available measure of partisanship since Georgia does not have registration by party) jumped from 41 percent in the first round to 47 percent in the runoff, even as the percentage with past Democratic primary voting experience dropping from 41 percent to 30 percent. Most mysteriously, the percentage of new voters jumped significantly in the runoff as well; it’s unclear whether these are low-propensity-to-vote Republicans being “mobilized” or independents leaning toward Ossoff.

The big question is how many voters will turn out on Election Day, where Republicans usually have a sizable advantage. Virtually everyone concedes early voting will be a significantly higher percentage of the total vote than on April 20, partially because both campaigns focused on “banking” early votes, and partially because an awful lot of voters are frantic to get their names off the contact lists that have earned them regular phone calls, knocks on the door, and a mailbox stuffed with flyers for weeks and weeks. But how high will the total vote go? The 192,000 votes on April 20 came close to the 2014 totals for this district — pretty astonishing for a special election. But the total vote on Tuesday could go well beyond that up toward the 310,000 votes cast in the 2016 elections. 

On the one hand, that could signal that the off-the-charts Democratic enthusiasm the Ossoff campaign has generated is reaching new heights. Traditionally Democratic turnout in special elections in Georgia has been abysmal. Indeed, that’s largely why Republicans were expected to win this contest in the first place. On the other hand, the more this looks like a normal sixth-district electorate, the more a normal outcome — a Republican victory — seems likely. Everything the Handel campaign is doing has been designed to “wake up” Republican voters. Maybe they’re awake and headed to the polls on Tuesday. 

The polls are not showing any clear trends other than the fact Handel has yet to lead one. In the last week, two polls (from SUSA and Opinion Savvy) have shown the race in a dead heat. A bit earlier, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed Ossoff up 51-44. The very latest survey (from Landmark Communications) has the Democrat ahead by under two points. The one thing everyone agrees on is that the undecided vote has all but vanished. 

As for the intangibles, Politico ran an article on Friday suggesting that in Washington, Republicans were preparing for “the possibility of an unnerving defeat.”

While no one is willing to publicly write off Handel’s chances just yet — Republicans stress that she remains competitive and point to robust GOP early voting figures — several private surveys taken over the last few weeks show Republican nominee Karen Handel trending downward, with one private party poll showing 30-year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff opening up a more than five-point lead in the Republican-oriented, suburban Atlanta seat.

What’s unclear about this and similar reports is whether they should be taken at face value, or instead as expectation-lowering devices aimed at making a win seem enormous — or perhaps even an effort to shake the money tree among Republicans one last time before the deal goes down (fundraising pitches are almost always pessimistic). 

There has been one late development that suggests some Republicans are panicking: an ad from an obscure conservative group called the Principled Leadership Project has appeared that seeks to tie Ossoff to the “violent left” that is “endorsing and applauding” the shooting of Steve Scalise last week:

It is hard to say who needs the “win” more. This is likely the last competitive special election of 2017 (the not-so-competitive election in Republican-tilting South Carolina is also on June 20, and the last two currently scheduled specials are in deep-red Utah in November and Alabama in December). A Democratic win in what has long been a Republican district could give the Democrats a springboard for fundraising and candidate recruitment heading into what is increasingly looking like a strong Democratic midterm. A Republican win would not only disappoint all those Ossoff donors: It would also leave the Donkey Party 0-for-2017, with the exception of one contest in a heavily Democratic district in heavily Democratic California.

So the whole political world will be looking South on June 20.

Georgia’s Extra-Special Election Enters the Final Stretch