On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Democrats close to upset in another US House by-election

A special election to fill a vacant safe Republican seat in the US House of Representatives has almost been snatched at the primary round of voting – by a Democrat.

The final election between the two leading candidates to take the 6th congressional district in the state of Georgia, running from the northern suburbs of Atlanta out into rural areas – a “bastion of white college-educated professionals and upscale shopping centers” according to the Washington Post – is scheduled for June 20.

But at today’s primary round election – where each party can run multiple candidates – a single candidate could have claimed the seat had they won 50% of the total vote.

Democratic Party candidate Jon Ossoff nearly did just that, winning 48.1% of the vote among 18 different candidates.

Sensing the surge behind 30-year old first-time candidate Ossoff’s enthusiastic campaign, both US major parties spent a fortune on the contest.

Ossoff had raised at least $8.3 million – a massive sum for any congressional district race, let alone a normally unwatched special election which will barely dint the Republican majority in the House.

The contest has acquired major psychological importance in the US, being seen as something of a referendum on President Trump.

Trump himself underlined that perception, stepping out from his executive duties to tweet repeated criticisms of the Democratic candidate.

Late election data flow for one county kept the cliffhanger results, managed by the Georgia Secretary of State, from becoming clear until the early hours of Wednesday morning (US time).

The profiles of how the vote shared out in the two parties could hardly be more different.

For the Democratic Party five candidates stepped forward, but apart from Ossoff none of them troubled the scorers, with the minor four winning 0.26% of the vote or less.

On the Republican side, four candidates scored significant votes. Former Georgia state Secretary of State Karen Handel did best, winning 19.8% to become Ossoff’s opponent in the final election, known as the runoff.

Three other republicans won 10%, 8% and 8%, and the remaining seven scored less than 1%.

Georgia 6th special election round 1 - chart.png

Democrat voters united behind one candidate; Republicans split between four

The Republicans will take heart that in total they won 51% of the vote to the Democrat’s aggregate 49%.

In the past three elections the Democrat vote in the district has been a lot lower: 35% (2012), 34% (2014) and 38% (2016).

The ‘swing’ to the Democrats is partly due to low turnout. Only 192,000 voters showed up today, compared to 294,000 in 2012, 210,000 in the 2014 mid-term elections, and 326,000 last November.

The main Republican problem today was that less than half of their November 2016 supporters – 48% – showed up to vote, while 75% of last year’s Democrat supporters turned out to support Ossoff and his minor colleagues.

In another by-election in Kansas last week, the turnout figures compared to last November were similar: 38% for Republicans and 69% for Democrats.

The Democrats, quite simply, are currently almost twice as motivated as Republicans to turn up to fresh elections.

image - Jon Ossofff - Georgia.jpeg

Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff’s campaign is driven by a partisan voter base highly motivated to oppose the Trump administration and Republican control of Congress (image: Atlanta Magazine)

Pundits expect the final weeks of the campaign will see an avalanche of spending to attack Ossoff, and no doubt many more presidential tweets.

But those voters who chose to support Ossoff today have already considered and rejected such attacks. Their only real task is to turn out to vote a second time in eight weeks.

The more complicated challenge for Republican candidate Karen Handel is that she now needs to unite almost all the fractured Republican voters behind her.

If the same voters were to go to the polls in June, Handel would need to gather around 92% of the voters who today backed other Republicans.

Ideally, the Republican candidate for such a situation would be a broad-based uniter. But Handel is a staunch social conservative, twice endorsed by 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in recent elections, with a marked anti-abortion stance. In 2012 she became involved in a scandal over defunding of health service Planned Parenthood, a touchstone for political division in the US.

Handel is also a strong supporter of repeal of the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, a position steadily losing popularity across the nation, even among Republican voters.

Despite her religious conservatism, there is also the curious business of her former membership of Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights movement within the Republican party.

In her earlier political career Handel apparently found it prudent to join this group when running for office in her home county, which has an influential gay population.

But when seeking statewide support for the position of Governor in 2010, she needed to appeal to the more conservative Republican base. So the Log Cabin membership was written out of her history, until her Republican primary opponent – current Governor Nathan Deal – attacked her mercilessly over the issue.

image - Karen Handel - Georgia.jpg

Republican candidate Karen Handel – in 2010 she strenuously denied a past membership of Log Cabin Republicans (image: Politifact)

Handel’s denials – claiming she had no recollection of the documented movement membership in the face of clear evidence – also damaged her credibility.

For a US politician running on a social and religious conservative platform to simply forget a past membership of the high-profile Log Cabin Republicans faction does somewhat strain credulity. Fact-checker Politifact gave Handel’s denial a blunt ‘pants on fire’ rating.

The Georgia Governorship race in 2010 between Handel and Deal, and other intra-party combats over the past decade, make Handel an experienced candidate, but have also left her with political bruises.

Whether she is the candidate to win over support from 92% of Republican voters who have already considered her for this seat, and decided to look elsewhere, remains to be seen.

But partisan political combat in the US is very tribal, and Republicans will not want to see a seat lost to the Democrats. Both sides will continue to spend big and attack ferociously.

The race for the 6th district of Georgia is trivial in terms of Washington decision-making for the next 18 months, but psychologically important nonetheless.

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