Political unknown takes Trump by surprise with tight contest in Atlanta
America Letter: Special election to fill conresssional district seat in Georgia had been regarded as a shoo-in for the Republicans
Democratic US House of Representatives candidate Jon Ossoff is one of 18 candidates who ran in the non-partisan special election to fill Georgia’s 6th congressional district seat. Photograph: EPA
For one brief moment this week it was as if election fever had returned to the United States.
On Wednesday evening, political pundits, live bloggers and election number-crunchers across the land were out in force, as the eyes of the nation turned to Atlanta, Georgia.
But by Monday it was clear that the race would be a tighter contest than had been expected.
The first sign that something was stirring was a tweet from Trump on Monday morning, claiming: “The super Liberal Democrat in the Georgia Congressional race tomorrow wants to protect criminals, allow illegal immigration and raise taxes!”
Six tweets later it was apparent that the US president was growing increasingly worried about an election that had been regarded as a shoo-in for the Republicans.
The target of his Twitter attack was the 30-year-old political unknown Jon Ossoff. The Democratic candidate, a film-maker and former Democratic staffer, had been making steady progress in the polls. The sixth district of Georgia, located in the affluent northern suburbs of Atlanta, has been solidly Republican for decades. Republican stalwart Newt Gingrich held the seat for 20 years.
But on Wednesday night the Democratic challenger came within touching distance of victory, winning 48.1 per cent of the vote. His failure to pass the 50 per cent threshold meant the race will go to a run-off on June 20th. The Republicans, who had run an acrimonious campaign and were split between 11 candidates, are expected to rally behind the state’s former secretary of state Karen Handel in the run-off, increasing their chances of victory in two months’ time.
Trump’s approval ratings have averaged at 41 per cent since his inauguration – an historic low
While it is notoriously difficult to deduce national trends from special elections in the US, the result in Georgia has unsettled the Republican party.
It came a week after the party narrowly won another Republican seat in Kansas following the appointment of Mike Pompeo as head of the CIA. Ron Estes, the former state treasurer, defeated Democrat James Thompson by just seven percentage points in Kansas’s 4th congressional district.
Three further elections are looming – Mick Mulvaney’s South Carolina seat following his appointment as head of the Office of Management and Budget, a battle in Montana over interior secretary Ryan Zinke’s former seat, and an election to replace Xavier Becerra, who became California’s attorney general.
Trump’s approval ratings
As Republicans digest the results, focus has turned to the US president’s impact on the series of one-off elections. A poll from Gallup this week showed that Trump’s approval ratings have averaged at 41 per cent since his inauguration – an historic low for a president in the first three months of his presidency. Republicans are worried about the impact the Trump effect is having on voters.
It is not yet clear whether Trump will visit Georgia ahead of the run-off on June 20th
The sixth congressional district in Georgia that almost fell to Democrats is not representative – with a high proportion of college-educated Republican voters, Trump barely won the district in November, winning by 1.5 percentage points compared to Mitt Romney’s 23-point victory in 2012. So far it is not yet clear whether Trump will visit Georgia ahead of the run-off on June 20th, though he called Karen Handel on the morning after the election. When questioned she said she hoped he would visit, saying the election was “not about any one person”.
With thoughts already turning to next year’s mid-term elections, Congressional Republicans are beginning to worry about how the Trump brand will impact their chances.
But this week’s election also raises questions for Democrats. The fact that a little-known candidate came so close to victory in a strongly Republican area has energised the party. Ossoff’s performance was the first electoral proof of the new-found purpose and motivation that many Democrats have reported in their constituencies since Trump’s election. But it did not come without a cost.
The party ploughed $8.3 million (€7.7 million) into his campaign, a huge financial commitment for a district that was not seen as natural Democratic terrain. Whether they will be able to repeat this for the run-off against a much more focused Republican campaign remains to be seen.
Ultimately, despite all the energy and hope generated by Ossoff, Democrats did not win either the Georgia or Kansas elections. Strategists worry about how long the energy and momentum that has invigorated many on the left since Trump’s victory will last, and whether the Georgia election was their best shot at victory.
As Newt Gingrich, the man who held the 6th congressional seat in Georgia for 20 years, said, in dismissing the Democrats’ efforts: “Almost doesn’t win elections.”