Georgia on their minds

Good news of a sort today for Donald Trump and the embattled Republican Party, with victories in two southern congressional by-elections.

First the one that got most of the attention: the sixth district of Georgia, vacated by Republican Tom Price, who earlier this year became Secretary for Health and Human Services. Historically it’s a safe Republican seat, once held by Newt Gingrich. Price held it last year with 61.7% of the vote.

Trump, however, only won 50.8% of the two-party vote there, and given the huge advantage that incumbents have, the presidential election was expected to be a better guide to what might happen once the seat became vacant. With Trump losing popularity since his inauguration, it looked like a good opportunity for the Democrats. Money and effort were poured in accordingly: it is apparently the most expensive single Congressional race ever, with some US$55 million being spent.

Georgia runs a two-round system (also known as a “jungle primary”); in the first round, held two months ago, Democrat candidate Jon Ossoff led with 48.1% of the vote. But virtually all the other candidates were Republicans, who between them had 51.0%. So Ossoff went into a runoff today (Tuesday in the US) against Karen Handel, who had led the Republican field with 19.8%.

Opinion polls showed a close race, and so it was, but Handel came out the winner. She currently has 52.6% of the vote, although that’s expected to come down a little when postal votes are counted.

Nate Silver’s preview from yesterday gives good coverage of the expectations game; as he says, “Sometimes dumb things matter if everyone agrees that they matter.” Look forward to recriminations among the Democrats over whether things could have been done differently, and particularly over whether more capital could have been made out of Trump’s various scandals.

The other seat in contention, which mostly slipped under the radar, was the fifth district of South Carolina, vacated by the appointment of Republican Mick Mulvaney to be director of the Office of Management and Budget. Like most of the south, the district was solidly Democrat for more than a century, but finally fell to the Republicans in 2010. Mulvaney won 61.0% last year, and Trump had 59.6% in the district (all figures two-party).

So even though its sitting member had much the same margin, the South Carolina seat was seen as much less of a Democrat prospect. But it confounded expectations with a swing of almost ten per cent. Republican Ralph Norman won with 51.6%, less than three thousand votes ahead of Democrat Archie Parnell.

The Democrats therefore continue their pattern this year of making gains – sometimes fairly significant ones – but being unable to pick up seats. To some extent that seems to be bad luck, but it also reflects the sort of tactical miscalculation that plagued Hillary Clinton’s campaign last year. If some of the resources put into Georgia had instead gone to South Carolina, it’s possible that Parnell might have got over the line.

Either way, it’s a reassurance for Republicans that things are not quite so bad as they might appear. They may be in disarray in Washington, but they can still win elections. Swings like these may be enough to produce a Democrat majority in the House of Representatives at next year’s election, but they do not yet signal the sort of catastrophic collapse that might impel the GOP to take action against its rogue president.

6 thoughts on “Georgia on their minds

  1. And with all votes in for Georgia 6th, Republican Handel wins with 51.9%, a margin of just under ten thousand votes.


  2. > If some of the resources put into Georgia had instead gone to South Carolina, it’s possible that Parnell might have got over the line.

    Or maybe not. There’s an interesting argument being put about that devoting huge resources to these races is counterproductive. Democratic voters are already very energised; an increased focus only serves to motivate Republican voters. Thus the Democrats do relatively better in low turnout elections (SC-05) than high turnout ones (GA-06).

    And what’s with the long gap between between the first round and the runoff? The GA-06 “jungle primary” was on April 18. In between, the British have conducted an entire national election campaign and the French have gone to the polls four times.


    1. And what’s with the long gap between between the first round and the runoff?

      Probably a Murdoch plot so much more money is spent on tv advertising.
      Note how political tv advertising is not allowed in France. Any appearance of an official candidate, such as on a talk-show, must provide precisely matched time for each and every candidate.

      Thus the Democrats do relatively better in low turnout elections (SC-05) than high turnout ones (GA-06).

      I thought it was the opposite, especially in those southern states where getting the black vote out is critical? I thought this was where a fair part of the money was spent–which involves door-to-door slog. Unless these prosperous districts don’t have high black representation? Which brings me to:

      Charles, you didn’t mention how gerrymandered these two districts are. I ask because in yesterday and todays NYT:

      Some States Beat Supreme Court to Punch on Eliminating Gerrymanders
      By THOMAS FULLER and MICHAEL WINES, 21 June 2017.
      A handful of states, including California, have tried to minimize the partisanship in redistricting – but mostly because voters, not politicians, insisted on it.


      Justices to Hear Major Challenge to Partisan Gerrymandering
      By ADAM LIPTAK, 20 June 2017.
      The challengers in a Wisconsin case that could impose limits on a practice that has helped define American politics say partisanship in redrawn districts can be measured.


      1. Thanks David – yes, on the resources question it seems to me there should be a happy medium. Pouring money in didn’t seem to help in Georgia, but it doesn’t follow that a bit more wouldn’t have helped in South Carolina. As to the time lag, the problem is they’re still thinking of the first round (which is what it really is) as a primary, where you’re just selecting each party’s candidates for the “real” election. But that’s the wrong way to look at it, as you can see from this one – Ossoff came close to getting 50% in April, in which case he would have won the seat with no runoff required.

        Michael – the effect of turnout is complicated, and I don’t think analysts have reached agreement. The folks at FiveThirtyEight seemed to take the view that given Trump’s unpopularity, Democrat voters would be more highly motivated this time, so a low turnout would tend to favor them. Turnout in Georgia was well up on the first round, but still below 60%; apparently the weather yesterday was dreadful.

        The 6th is suburban Atlanta; according to Wikipedia it’s 13.4% black, while South Carolina’s 5th (which is largely rural) is 28.6%. The 6th also has a substantial number of Hispanics; the 5th doesn’t. Both states’ boundaries have been drawn for partisan Republican purposes; South Carolina, for instance, elects six Republicans and just one Democrat, because most of the black population has been corralled into one district. Nonetheless, neither of these districts is among the worst for gerrymandering: both look at least reasonably coherent geographically


  3. This year’s Republican incumbent special elections in KS-4, Montana at large, GA-6 & SC-5 have all seen a significant decline in the Republican vote from last year. The average swing to the Democrats if evenly applied across the US would see the Democrats take back the house in next year’s mid terms. So these results are good news for the Democrats bearing in mind that any actual Democrat victory in these safe Republican districts would have been outliers in anyone’s language.
    In GA-6 the Democrat Jon Ossoff was arguably the wrong candidate (looked like a North Eastern liberal, former film director and congressional aide (Washington insider) and tried to make the campaign about Trump instead of healthcare which had a 94% rating in top five issues for voters in the district. Though Karen Handel the Republican nominee was a mediocre campaigner she is a three time Georgia Attorney General and has run for governor and the US Senate in the past so name recognition was not a problem unlike Ossoff who was a first time candidate clearly in need of some political skills. Still she has just fifteen months to enjoy the win as it all happens again in November 2018. Next time if the Democrats can find a yellow dog candidate and Trump blows up in the meantime it might be a different story.

    Currently the Democrats don’t have a clear national leader (and Nancy Peloisi is not that person – every bit as polarising a figure to Republicans as Mitch McConnell is to Democrats). The Democrats also need a new Howard Dean heading the DNC and commentators are still unsure if Perez (newly elected DNC chairman) is the strategic thinker the party needs.


    1. Thanks Reilly. I agree that the by-election results have been quite good for the Democrats in terms of swing, but in view of the chaos of the Trump administration I think they could reasonably expect them to be better. Remember that they’ve all been open seats; to take the House next year they will have to beat actual incumbents, which is always harder. Also, political perception tends to become reality; if people think the Democrats are doing badly, it doesn’t matter that that belief is unfounded, it still has an effect. And yes, definitely a clear national leader would be a good thing, but there’s no sign of one on the horizon.


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