Georgia’s special House election served as a $50 million laboratory for Republicans and Democrats already looking ahead to the 2018 elections, who used the high-intensity race between GOP Rep.-elect Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff to test tactics, hone messages and closely study the type of voters who could decide control of the House of Representatives in 17 months.
After studying the race, both parties, especially their key outside groups, are preparing to invest more in their ground games in 2018, and Republicans are planning to make Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi a centerpiece of their campaigns once again. But Democrats and Republicans alike are still grappling with exactly how House candidates should or should not engage with Donald Trump, after Handel and Ossoff both treated the president more cautiously than many in their parties in Washington.
The special election, which Handel won by 4 points Tuesday night, included intense study of local voters in dozens of polls and focus groups and thousands of door-to-door visits. Georgia’s 6th District has historically leaned more GOP than many 2018 battleground districts — but the diverse, affluent and highly educated district north of Atlanta has many key similarities to the unfolding roster of mostly suburban swing House seats.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, announced this spring that it will prioritize person-to-person campaigning for the House in 2018, opening dozens of district offices in battleground seats across the country. But in Georgia, where Ossoff, Handel and outside groups (including CLF) clogged the TV airwaves with ads, the super PAC got to test-run its tactics, as it deployed a 135-person canvassing team to more than 400,000 doors and delivered 550,000 pieces of mail.
The group spent $2 million on the program, targeting about 140,000 less-likely GOP voters with a strategy to drive them to vote early.
“Every person we talked to got an absentee ballot in the mail, along with an addressed and stamped envelope. Then, we called them every 48 hours until they sent it back in,” CLF Executive Director Corry Bliss said. “There’s more to campaigning than saving every penny for TV.”
That persistence paid dividends, pulling in Republican votes early before the June runoff. Ossoff built a large lead in early voting during the April primary, but he ran only 1 point ahead of Handel in the same category in June, which gave Democrats an early sign on Tuesday night that Ossoff was in trouble.
“There’s no such thing as starting too early,” Bliss said.
House Majority PAC, the main House Democratic super PAC, also invested in its “most robust field effort ever” in Georgia, Executive Director Charlie Kelly said. The group knocked on more than 100,000 doors.
"Our focus is strategic paid media at HMP, but this cycle warrants a new look at developing different mediums to meet and persuade voters where they live,” Kelly said.
Republicans have also trumpeted their success at painting Ossoff into a California-shaped corner, after stamping Pelosi’s face on TV ads, mailers and door-hangers around the district to paint Ossoff as a liberal and argue that he would vote in lockstep with the House minority leader. Some GOP strategists had been concerned that anti-Pelosi attacks don’t work as well as they used to, but the National Republican Congressional Committee says it continues to be a key part of the GOP campaign toolkit.
“In suburban, slightly Republican-leaning districts, Nancy Pelosi is unpopular and we saw it pay off here,” said NRCC spokesman Jesse Hunt. “She provokes anger among voters at the center, and frankly, that’s what’s at hand in these races — vote for a Democrat and you’re going to get Nancy Pelosi.”
The NRCC and CLF used identical messaging in Montana’s special election in May, with one super PAC ad asking about the Democrats’ candidate there: “You wouldn’t trust Pelosi with your vote. Why trust Rob Quist?”
“For them to win the districts that they need to win back the House, they’re going to have to figure out how to get out of the trap that is Nancy Pelosi as the face of their party,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican consultant who’s running a pro-Trump nonprofit group, America First Policies, which spent more than $1 million in Georgia. “They’re without a defined leader and Pelosi is the only one left. We’ve seen the data, and she’s a huge problem for them."
For Republicans, Trump didn’t prove to be as much of a problem as Democrats had hoped. Trump won the district by less than 2 points, and voters across the district often cited the president as a motivating force in participating in the race.
One GOP strategist quoted a response recorded by a voter before the election: “I don’t like [Ossoff], but I want to send a message to Trump.”
Yet Ossoff, who rarely mentioned the president in public in the closing weeks of the race, failed to attract as much crossover support from Republican voters as he needed to pull out a victory for the traditionally Republican seat. While Trump’s approval rating dipped in Georgia, it never got too far below his disapproval rating.
“There’s something about the market we cannot penetrate, even with millions of dollars,” said a national Democrat involved in the race. “If we can’t figure out how to talk about Trump, that’s bad news for us.”
Another national Democratic strategist, noting that Trump’s ratings remained close to even in Georgia, said that “any district where Trump has a positive approval rating is going to be difficult for Democrats,” the source said. “What is your indictment of Republicans if Trump is still above water?”
Meanwhile, Republicans showed relief that the GOP base “stuck with us,” said former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.). “It shows that Republicans will still come home and vote Republican, even if they are concerned about the president.”
Jolly added that as he “strongly consider[s]” his own prospects for a potential 2018 rematch against Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist, the results out of Georgia are “very encouraging as I think about this.”