Republicans are desperately trying to hang onto a Georgia House seat up for grabs in Tuesday’s special election to dampen Democrats’ prospects for establishing a beachhead before the 2018 congressional mid-term elections.
A 30-year old former Democratic congressional staffer and documentary filmmaker, Jon Ossoff, is the clear frontrunner in a congested field of 18 Republican and Democratic candidates. But he needs to garner at least 50 percent of the vote in the tony, suburban Atlanta district to avoid a runoff with a Republican in June. With a campaign war chest of more than $8.2 million and an energized party, Ossoff has a better than even chance of winning it all today.
The race is being closely watched by political analysts, congressional leaders and the White House as a bellwether of the Republicans prospects for retaining control of the House and Senate in 2018 after a rocky start this year punctuated by a failed effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and growing uncertainty of whether there will be a tax bill this year.
The election outcome is also an important gauge of President Trump’s continued political firepower in the face of his historically sagging public approval ratings, widespread concerns about his flip-flopping on key issues, and worry about mounting tensions with North Korea.
There is little doubt that Trump will have skin in the game in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, a leafy, upscale, suburban area north of Atlanta that has been in Republican hands since 1981 and was most recently held by Tom Price, the Tea Party conservative who stepped down to become Trump’s secretary of health and human services.
Trump took time away from the North Korean crisis on Monday to record a robocall urging voters in the district to defeat Ossoff, warning that he will “raise your taxes, destroy your healthcare, and flood our country with illegal immigrants.” The president insisted that Ossoff would be a “yes man” for “Washington Democrats” such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
Whether Trump’s intervention is plus or minus remains to be seen. Trump’s brand of abrasive, combative politics and shoot from the hip style didn’t play well in the district during the general election – and it’s not likely to play any better now, nearly 100 stormy days into his first term.
Trump narrowly defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the district by 1.5 percentage points last November, while Price romped to reelection with a 24-point margin over his Democratic challenger. The 6th District, while heavily Republican, is also a bastion of younger, better educated, more affluent and more mainstream voters than the typical dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporters. About 60 percent of voters in the 6th district graduated from college and the median age is under 38, meaning that millennials could have a big say in the outcome if they get to the polls.
Rebecca Bukant DeHart, executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party, told MSNBC today, “We’re seeing folks that are really unhappy with the direction of that party, folks that maybe aren’t always your regular voters going out to the polls that are feeling the fear, the discontent, the unhappiness” of Trump’s brand of national politics.
Republican Ron Estes won an open House seat in heavily red Kansas April 11, but by a much narrower margin than many expected, 53 percent to 46 percent.
None of the 11 Republicans seeking election in the Georgia contest today have any hope of breaking 20 percent, but a few are in a position to finish a distance second to Ossoff and hope to unify the party in time for the runoff.
The district’s GOP, for the time being at least, is badly fractured and divided over Trump, and prospects for pulling together the factions in a matter of month are a long shot. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a close ally of the House Republican leadership, told The Washington Post yesterday, “You’ve got a miniature civil war going on there.”
Trump’s overall job approval rating stands at 39 percent, the same as it was in February, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Moreover, just 46 percent are very or somewhat confident in the new president’s ability to work effectively with Congress.
The survey captured the public’s unease with the direction Trump is taking the country, with many seeing the U.S. in a weaker position internationally than it was before. While 31 percent say Trump’s get tough policies on immigration and national security have made the U.S. safer than it was under President Obama, 33 percent say Trump’s policies have made the country less safe.
Voters are also troubled by Trump’s flip-flopping on policy since taking office. Just last week, he abandoned his claim that China engaged in currency manipulation, and he stepped up his criticism of Russia after once praising President Vladimir Putin. A new Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans no longer think that Trump keeps his promises. Just 45 percent now say he can be depended on to keep his word, down 17 percentage points from February.
What’s more, Trump has lost ground with those who think he is a strong, decisive leader, is honest, and can bring about change the country needs.