The Referendum Thesis Fails in Georgia By Heather E. Yates
All eyes were focused on Georgia’s 6th district Tuesday night in the runoff election between Jon Ossoff and Karen Handel to see if the referendum thesis would deliver. It came up short. The district vacated by Tom Price, Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, has a solid Republican history where high profile Republicans like Newt Gingrich have occupied it since the 1970s. In 2012, Romney handily won the district by 30 points. In 2016 Hillary Clinton lost by only 1.5 points and it promptly drew Democrats’ attention and the Ossoff challenge. Republicans ultimately held on to the sixth district with Handel defeating Ossoff by a five-point margin of victory.
Given the history of the district, the Democrats’ goal to capture it was protracted and lofty. The race attracted national and international scrutiny because there were two defining features about this race that set it apart from the other special elections.
First, early voting and voter mobilization surpassed the district’s 2014 midterm figures. Early ballots cast totaled approximately 140,000, which reflected a net gain of 36,000 ballots cast by voters who did not vote in the April primary. Strategists correctly projected that early votes favored Handel in Georgia’s sixth district.
The second defining feature was the steep price tag. The amount of money raised and spent in this election made it the single costliest congressional district campaign in U.S. electoral history rivaled only by U.S. presidential campaigns. Preliminary reports estimated that a collective total of $55 million dollars was spent on this contest. Ossoff raised a significant portion of campaign donations from out-of-state sources totaling about $24 million dollars whereas Handel enjoyed substantial support from Super PACS, which expended approximately $18 million dollars on her behalf. There was a significant grassroots presence as well, Ossoff’s campaign recruited more than 12,000 volunteers to work the district and mobilize get-out-the-vote efforts.
The Democratic Party pinned its hopes on the 2017 special elections to energize the base coalitions heading into the 2018 midterms and beyond. The Democrats had hoped to rally around the Trump referendum thesis. However, that narrative seemed to lose its effect when Democrats failed to secure victories in Kansas and Montana. This was further punctuated by Ossoff’s reluctance to mention the Trump administration or invoke Trump’s name while stumping on the campaign trail.
Democrats continue to explore implications for the midterm campaigns. The most helpful lesson was derived from Georgia’s special election. There remain deep residual rifts from the 2016 campaign in the party base and the leadership understands the critical need to unify the schism that’s vulnerable to additional fracture. Ossoff’s campaign apparatus demonstrated ways to reach crucial components of the democratic base that re-engaged African-Americans and women and discovered inroads to independents, and dissatisfied Republicans.
The most immediate implication, however, is on public policy, principally the current Republican Health Care reform bill and tax overhaul coming up in the House. The newest additions to the GOP conference will be viewed as the fresh troops to shore up the status quo enabling the Republican leadership to breathe a little easier in the days ahead.
Heather E. Yates (@heatheryatesphd) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Central Arkansas and the author of The Politics of Emotions, Candidates, and Choices (Palgrave).