By all conventional political wisdom, this race should have been a no-brainer win for the Republican Party. The previous incumbent Tom Price, who had held the seat since 2002, handily won re-election in 2016 receiving nearly 62% of the vote. In the jungle primary on April 18th where 11 Republicans and 5 Democrats vied for the post, this traditionally Republican stronghold should have resulted in a runoff between the top two Republicans.
But 2016 was a different playing field than previous years. While Price easily coasted to victory, Hillary Clinton turned in a strong performance, losing to Trump by just over 1% of the overall vote in the 6th District. Trump was not wildly popular with the 6th District Republicans.
Still, no one expected that an unknown, 30-year-old liberal Democrat named Jon Ossoff would emerge as the leader in the polls in the weeks leading up to the election. This was the seat that had been held by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and current U.S. Johnny Isakson before Price took over. It would be difficult to find a district more red in the country.
Buoyed by an effective ground game, plus over $8 million dollars in fundraising, Ossoff reached 43% in the polls. His closest Republican contestant Karen Handel, a well-known former Secretary of State, hovered around 16%. The rest of the field divvied up the remaining support. While Ossoff supporters hoped for an outright win of 50% or more, that always seemed a long shot.
The Trump Factor
Interestingly, many of the candidates, especially the Republicans, distanced themselves from Donald Trump. A few presented themselves as outright Trump supporters, but the following observation from Handel supporter Erick Erickson tells the tale
In fact, Trump finally woke up to the fact that the Republicans were in trouble right before the election and jumped into the fray with the following attacks on Jon Ossoff
Instead of hurting, these tweets appear to have actually HELPED Ossoff, who finished the race winning 48% of the total vote, a 5% increase over his poll numbers. His final vote tally of 92,390 far exceeded that of second-place finisher Karen Handel’s 37,993. Naturally, Trump claimed that the expected runoff was a win for the Republicans, thanks to his help.
But the very idea that Trump considered a runoff as a “win” for the Republicans shows just how scared he was that the Democrats would take the seat outright.
Karen Handel now has a tricky path to follow between now and the June runoff election. Thus far she has been able to put some distance between herself and Donald Trump. Now she is the Republican standard bearer and her position becomes far more difficult.
Plus, she needs to manage this feat without aligning herself with the leader of her own party. Trump has lost support among his followers since the election. He is obviously a liability in the Sixth District. If his approval ratings continue to remain under water or decline even further, his support will be the kiss of death for any Republican candidate.
In addition, reports of voting irregularities in Fulton County, where Handel resides, coupled with the theft of voting equipment just two days prior to the election raise some concerns about the election results. There is also a document circulating among the electorate that Ossoff voters do NOT have to vote again in the June runoff, as their votes yesterday will count in the runoff. This is patently not true.
Meanwhile, Jon Ossoff knows that a runoff does not mean an automatic defeat for him. Instead, it is now up to the Republicans to defeat him, not the other way around. His supporters are enthusiastic and energized. The Republicans have to repair a fractured party. Anything can happen between now and June.
Fasten your seatbelts folks. We’re in for a bumpy ride.