SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. — Despite initial relief among Georgia’s 6th District residents that the barrage of campaign ads has come to an end, the reprieve might not last too long.
“Now we know what New Hampshire looks like,” said Chip Lake, a GOP consultant based in Georgia.
The question is, with 2018 just around the corner, will this year’s astronomical spending, much of it on TV, become a pattern in this suburban Atlanta district?
Democrats and Republicans largely agree that the contest for this seat won’t be anywhere near as intense as it had been over the past few months, when it was touted as the most competitive race in the country, attracting national media attention and spending.
But its characteristics on paper — namely the fact that President Donald Trump won here by less than 2 points last fall and that it’s a well-educated area — will keep it competitive, one GOP aide said.
The Congressional Leadership Fund — the biggest outside spender in the race — is keeping its office in the district open right through November 2018, as was its plan regardless of who won on Tuesday.
They’ve only just begun
At his watch party Tuesday night, both Democrat Jon Ossoff and his supporters spoke of a movement having “just begun.” (For his part, when asked on Sunday whether he’d run in 2018, Ossoff told reporters he’d have to talk it over with his fiancee.)
“Karen has to run again, so watch out,” said one Democrat at the Ossoff party. “This is a victory for us because it shows we can mobilize people in this district,” she added.
But it remains to be seen how aggressively Democrats will make a play for a district in which they just dumped millions of dollars and came up short.
New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, congratulated both Ossoff and South Carolina Democrat Archie Parnell on Tuesday night for narrowing the GOP’s winning margins in their districts from last fall. He followed that up with a Wednesday morning memo, declaring, “The House is in play.”
“I don’t make this statement lightly — I’ve never said it before,” Luján wrote. He praised Ossoff’s efforts to mobilize the base and persuade independents and moderate Republicans.
“We will carry those key lessons forward in order to compete in districts as Republican-leaning as Georgia, and in the dozens of districts on our battlefield that are much more competitive,”Luján said.
Georgia’s 6th shares many of the same characteristics as the districts that Democrats believe will pave their way to a House majority in 2018. It’s suburban, well-educated and affluent.
But as Democrats are eager to point out, there are many more districts — anywhere from 71 to 94, depending on how it’s calculated — that are more competitive than Georgia’s 6th District. Democrats need to gain 24 seats to win the majority.
“It was a reach then and I think it will still be a reach in 2018,” said one Democratic operative following the race.
It’s true Trump isn’t wildly popular here, and Handel and her campaign underwhelmed some Republicans. Plus, in a year and a half, she’ll have the added baggage of a congressional voting record. All those factors could make for easy attacks.
“She will have to pick some issues she disagrees with the president on, going forward,” the GOP aide said.
Overperforming the president
But out of all the GOP candidates who have won in four special elections so far this year, Handel was the only one who actually overperformed the president. She won 52 percent of the vote to Trump’s 48 percent last fall.
Even if she won the seat by a much narrower margin than Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price did last fall, Handel’s victory here maintains the status quo. Lake, the GOP consultant, predicted Handel would face a primary but she’d easily dispatch her challengers.
Keeping the seat in GOP hands takes immediate pressure off Republicans to go on offense here. And since Handel defeated a 30-year-old Democrat in the most expensive House race in the country, she enters Congress with a relatively high profile, Lake noted. That notoriety should help her campaign start replenishing its coffers.
Had Ossoff won, Republicans would have quickly mobilized to win the seat back in 2018, potentially rallying around a different candidate. Privately, Republicans have complained about Handel’s campaign and suggested that the former Georgia secretary of state — who lost two subsequent statewide bids for higher office — wasn’t a strong candidate.
Democrats may now have a similar conversation about Ossoff and whether — if he wants to run again — his is the best message.