The result Tuesday could upend 40 years of GOP dominance and set the tone for 2018.
If you’re a Republican strategist or a potential GOP candidate with eyes on 2018, this has not been the best of times. There has been a non-stop list of bad headlines — President Trump’s numbers sinking, FBI Director James Comey getting fired, a special counsel appointed to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election, possible collusion with Trump’s campaign team, and other topics that now reportedly include whether Trump himself tried to obstruct justice.
We’ve also witnessed the back-to-back spectacles of Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifying before Congress, the former calm and collected, the latter defensive and defiant. Unless you’re glued to Breitbart News or Fox & Friends, you know who emerged strong and who did not.
And now we approach an event that could make things even dicier for the Republican Party: Tuesday’s special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district. This is the seat formerly held by Tom Price (now Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services) and by Newt Gingrich as well, a seat that hasn’t gone Democratic since 1976. Democrat Jon Ossoff, a first-time candidate who has raised a staggering $23 million, has a shot at ending four decades of Republican rule. Polls show a tight race between Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel.
One potentially significant factor: A recent poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that only one in four voters approved of the House GOP’s controversial American Health Care Act. Handel supports it, while Ossoff is against it.
There’s something about special elections that gets normally sane political folks bent out of shape. Sometimes it’s just silly hype. But then, there’s also history.
There have been so many comparisons, fair or not, between Trump’s situation and what President Nixon faced during Watergate. And those with long memories are harking back to 1974, when the Republican Party lost a bunch of special House elections that had been in GOP hands forever. Think Gerald Ford’s seat in Michigan. Ford left the House in 1973 to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew as vice president. In the special election that followed, Democrat Richard Vander Veen won — the first time the seat had gone Democratic since 1910. And you know what happened that November: a Republican debacle. The GOP lost 49 seats in the House.
A Democratic victory Tuesday in Georgia would undoubtedly send a similar chilling message to Republican candidates running next year. But Democrats have their own internecine battles as well. A segment of the party — let’s call it the Sanders-Warren wing — wants them to go all out against Trump and fight him every step of the way. The hell with compromise. The other segment, call it the more establishment wing, wants to pick and choose their fights.
Ossoff is in the latter category. He is not running an overtly anti-Trump campaign, certainly not on the scale we saw last Tuesday in Virginia. But that was a Democratic primary for governor; the candidates would be expected to try to top each other with contempt for the president. A general election in the Georgia House district is much more of a balancing act. Hillary Clinton did well there in 2016, but Trump won it by 1.5 percentage points. Running a rabid anti-Trump campaign would be an iffy strategy at best.
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If Ossoff loses, no doubt the more progressive wing of the party will fault his tactics. They will insist that cautiousness is not the path to a majority in the House (or, less likely, the Senate) next year for the Democrats.
But an Ossoff win will send shivers down GOP spines and stoke fears of a rout. Republicans have been sticking by Trump for as long as they feel it’s politically feasible. A defeat Tuesday in Georgia’s 6th could change that dynamic. They could very well turn their backs on Trump as they did when they deserted Nixon in 1974.
If Ossoff succeeds, you know on Wednesday the conversation will be about House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker in 2018. And Mike Pence for president in 2019.
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