August 15th, 2020


The Two Parties Spent $50 Million In One Georgia Race, Yet Voters Still Got Shortchanged

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published June 22, 2017

The Two Parties Spent $50 Million In One Georgia Race, Yet Voters Still Got Shortchanged

Not to suggest that the quality of politics in this nation isn't what it once was, but . . . take a look at the lead players in the House special election in Georgia's 6th Congressional District.

Once upon a time, in the land north of Atlanta, congressional Democrats ruled the roost - colorful sorts like Carl Vinson, the longtime House Armed Services Committee chair nicknamed "the father of the two-ocean navy" (yes, an aircraft carrier bears his name) and Albert Sidney Camp (named after a Confederate general, he served in the First World War and holds the distinction of introducing Franklin Roosevelt to the recuperative waters of Warm Springs).

The Democrat trying to carry on in their tradition? Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker and former political aide. No FDR or man-of-war he, as the results from Georgia told us.

Not that Republicans should be crowing over retaining a seat that seemed very much at risk going into Tuesday's vote.

This is the same district that, for the better part of four decades, gave the nation the likes of Newt Gingrich and Tom Price, a pair of high-wattage conservative lights.

Running to keep the seat Price vacated earlier this year when he joined the Trump cabinet: Karen Handel, not a deep thinker as much as she is a steep climber (she's a former vice presidential and gubernatorial aide and frequent candidate for statewide office).

I'll spare you from more such carping, including the record $50 million the two parties spent battling over this one measly House seat (by the way, I don't remember a single Democrat presently lamenting the money squandered in the Georgia arms race saying a peep while Hillary Clinton burned through a presidential record $1.2 billion last year).

Here are a couple of observations:

Don't Pay Much Attention. To those who see House special elections as harbingers of politics to come, let's flash back to November 2009 and the contest in New York's 23rd Congressional District.

Democrats picked up the GOP seat in that House special, supposedly a sign of a Republican Party in crisis. Two months later, Scott Brown was the surprise winner in the Massachusetts Senate special election to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy. In November 2010, a year after the results in NY 23 supposedly telegraphed GOP doom, Republicans gained 63 House seats, their biggest haul in seven decades.

Projecting Georgia's results nationwide isn't wise considering the money tossed into this race - for the Democrats, an estimated $30 million. Burning cash at that rate in 2018's targeted House races means Team Pelosi would have to come up with nearly $1 billion should they want to compete in up to three dozen races.

That won't happen. And with Ossoff coming up short, the media have one less hysterical note to sound. Overall, that's a good night for Republicans.

But Do Pay Attention To This. Previous House specials were fought on decidedly Republican turf in Kansas and Montana (plus a contest last night in South Carolina - another GOP win - that got overshadowed by events further to the south).

But Georgia was a different breed of cat.

Donald Trump carried the GA 6 last November by a mere percentage point - his 48% take was 20 points less than Mitt Romney in 2012 and 14 points less than John McCain in 2008.

Why the drop-off? Credit with a clever phrase: "reluctant Trump district".

Georgia's 6th CD, north of Atlanta, has a growing number of upper-middle class, college-degreed voters (one survey claims that nearly three in five GA 6 residents have a college diploma, which is higher than all but five other congressional districts nationwide). It was Rubio Country in Georgia's Republican Party. In November, it reluctantly stuck with the GOP standard-bearer.

Handel's victory is good news for Republicans in this respect: district voters may not be wild about Trump, but they apparently believe in brand loyalty (this is a seat that's been in GOP hands since Jimmy Carter's lone term in the Oval Office).

Now, what should concern Republicans: there are 23 congressional districts from coast to coast that split their ticket - voting for Hillary Clinton and a GOP congressman. Democrats will target these districts fiercely; Republicans will have to figure how to counter the attacks, as they did in Georgia with heavy spending and organization.

In GA 6, Ossoff tried to style himself as a moderate who wanted to take on government spending. Just how convincing that was when his party seems consumed by the politics of the angry left, while bashing proposed Trump budget cuts, is a matter for exit polls to determine.

One thing it is a reminder of: Bill Clinton culturally in touch with his fellow southerners seems a long time ago.

Meanwhile, incumbent Republicans will have to figure how to position themselves vis-à-vis events in Washington.

Take Obamacare repeal, for example. 14 of the GOP congressmen in the 23 Hillary districts voted to repeal. Of the 9 who bucked their party, only four were in states Trump carried last fall (Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas).

Talk isn't cheap, as this contest proves. So over-the-top was the campaigning spending that local television stations added an additional 15 hours of newscasts in the final weeks to make room for the ad blizzard.

Still, it shouldn't have taken $50 million to tell us what seems readily apparently in 2017: Democrats have a target-rich environment, yet are poor shots; Republicans have been fortunate to dodge bullets, but remain the hunted species.

And to think: we get to do this all over again in 2018.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: "The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain." During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.