Historically, the true test of any new US President is his party’s performance in the midterm elections, which take place two years after he ascends to the presidency. During these biennial elections, nearly 470 local and statewide officials are up for reelection across the United States, and while most remain in the hands of the incumbent party, there are almost always abrupt changes of power.
In 2008, President Obama entered the White House with enough congressional Democrats to get almost any agenda passed, but largely due to a grassroots movement known as the “Tea Party”, the 2010 midterm elections saw the balance of power shift over to Republicans.
Because President Trump appointed several of his cabinet members directly out of the US House of Representatives, their seats have become subject to special early elections, held about a year and a half before midterms. Usually these elections are massive landslides for the incumbent parties, with the communities involved proudly sending their previous representative off to DC.
Just one loss, in one seat vacated by a presidential appointment, would not only be embarrassing, it could cripple an entire administration, costing it a significant amount of political capital. Most presidents have never had to deal with such a nightmare, but this president has never exactly let precedent hold him back before.
The State of Georgia is currently divided into 14 districts. Until February, the 6th district was occupied by Republican Tom Price, who is now the Trump Administration’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. His seat has been held by Republicans for nearly four decades, the longest reign in Georgia, and has been held by notable Republicans like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
While the district has never voted for a Democrat in a presidential election, swinging Republican by almost 30 points in every one since 2000, it voted for Trump by a margin of less than two percent– so when Price’s seat opened up, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (or the DCCC) chose to allocate as much as possible to this smaller than average district.
On April 18th, after the most expensive congressional campaign in US History, 17 candidates for Price’s seat were narrowed down to 2: Democrat Jon Ossof, the only serious Democrat in the race, and Karen Handel, one of four serious Republicans. Ossof secured 48.1% of the vote, just shy of the 50% he needed to win the election outright, and Handel secured 19.8%, almost doubling the support of her closest Republican challenger. As per special election rules, the two now advance to a runoff 90 days after the first round of voting, which will take place on June 20. As this runoff approaches, the country teeters on the edge of its seat.
Ossof’s decisive portion of the vote is already considered a victory in and of itself by many democrats, it’s an impressive showing in a district that hasn’t been competitive in nearly forty years. But it remains to be seen whether Democrats can keep up the momentum that made Ossof so successful, which was fueled mainly by anti-Trump fervor. Not only do they need a repeat of the high voter turnout that propelled Ossof so close to outright victory in April, but they’ll need to build on it if they want to eke out a victory.
In the coming weeks, we’ll see how the rapidly expanding investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump Campaign influences the ways in which traditionally conservative areas of the country will vote. If Ossof pulls of a narrow victory, will it be because of higher voter turnout among Democrats, or because of disillusioned Republicans?
These questions help to illustrate why this special election is not just a small-scale rehash of the values that defined the presidential election, a chance for Democrats to feel good about themselves; it’s a barometer of public opinion, that will shape the way the two major political parties choose to present themselves and their champions for years to come.