WASHINGTON — Montana’s House race may have body-slammed itself into the public consciousness, but Georgia’s open House seat is a better early test of what elections will look like in the Trump era.
Montana Democrats suddenly have a last-minute chance at winning an open statewide House seat Thursday night after GOP candidate Greg Gianforte reportedly tackled and punched a reporter for asking health care questions he didn’t like, leading to widespread condemnations from many within his party.
But if Democrats pull off a win there Thursday night — still no guarantee given the state’s conservative lean and how many votes had already been sent in by mail — Gianforte’s unique terribleness makes it a poor test of the national environment. An open House seat in the Atlanta suburbs that’s drawn huge sums and national interest could show the GOP how much of a drag President Trump really is, and has Republicans even more nervous about what it will show them on June 20.
“This probably has the biggest national component of any race I’ve ever seen or been a part of and that’s because of Donald Trump,” longtime Georgia Republican strategist Chip Lake told the Daily News.
The wealthy, suburban district has been a Republican stronghold for decades — it was most recently held by Health & Human Services Secretary Tom Price, whose first campaign Lake ran, and before that was then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) home base.
But fresh-faced former House staffer Jon Ossoff nearly pulled off an outright win in the first round of voting in spite of a huge field of candidates, and strategists in both sides say he’s locked in a tight race with former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, largely because of Trump’s drag on his party.
“Karen slipped a couple points when Trump fired Comey. Karen slipped another few points when the news of the Comey memo and the meeting came out he next week. Anybody who says this race is not a national race on steroids just isn’t really paying attention,” Lake said. “The reason it’s competitive is because the national environment is really unfavorable for Republicans right now.”
The race is on pace to shatter spending records, with insiders projecting a total of $ 30 million spent on the campaign by the candidates and outside groups. That’s more than many presidential candidates spent on their campaigns last year.
Montana was always going to be a stretch for Democrats — Trump won there by 20 points, the state has trended Republican in recent years and Democrats’ candidate has plenty of flaws even if he hasn’t assaulted any reporters. But if the race is close, not all of it can be attributed to Gianforte’s own flaws — pollsters say Trump’s popularity there is about 50-50, down from where he was pre-election. A tight race there alongside a close race in Georgia and other strong Democratic showings in tough terrain in other special elections spells trouble for the GOP going forward.
Georgia’s special election is unusual because of how much money it’s attracted, the fast-changing demographic makeup of the district, and how wealthy and well-educated it is, making it a particularly tough place for Trump. While Democrats in Montana have pounded on Republicans’ Obamacare repeal bill, the message in Georgia has largely been about Trump, who is more unpopular there.
But both districts are considerably more Republican than the average — and Democrats’ real chances to win in both places as well as a better-than-expected showing in a ruby-red Kansas House district earlier this spring are a sign that Trump is hurting his party nationwide and could be an albatross for down-ticket Republicans next year.
“I don’t think any of these special elections are perfect representations of national politics… But when you add it all together it paints a pretty bleak picture for Republicans,” said David Wasserman, the House race editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.”
Wasserman said if he was a Republican in a swing- or GOP-leaning seat watching how the special elections are playing out, he’d be “feeling like an underdog.”