Much of the country is watching the Sixth District congressional runoff to see what clues it can offer about the 2018 mid-term elections, and how voters are digesting the debut of President Donald Trump.
Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel have become million-dollar proxies for next year’s war.
But in Georgia, these two canaries in a June 20 coal mine have a canary of their very own. In 12 days, voters in state Senate District 32 will decide a runoff between a well-funded Republican and a Democrat who, if the normal laws of political physics applied, ought not be in the running at all.
You may call it “the Jon Ossoff effect.” Republicans already are.
Senate District 32 is prime Newt Gingrich country, historically Republican and made up mostly of east Cobb County with a slice of Sandy Springs thrown in. With the exception of a couple precincts, it lies wholly within the Sixth District. In fact, it makes up nearly one-third of the Sixth.
Two women, both political neophytes, survived a first round of voting on April 18. Republican Kay Kirkpatrick, a recently retired orthopedic surgeon, raised more than $300,000. Democrat Christine Triebsch (pronounced TRIB-ish), a Marietta attorney, raised $5,000 and borrowed $5,000 more for her shoe-string effort.
The Democrat finished first in the balloting with 24 percent. Kirkpatrick scored 21 percent.
Days later, John Kennedy of Macon, chairman of the Senate Republican caucus sent an email to his colleagues, arguing that Kirkpatrick was in need of $150,000 more for her month-long sprint to the finish line.
“While many think that this is a dark red Republican territory, the data from the election is disturbing considering the number of Democrats that came out and voted, partly because of the [Jon] Ossoff effect,” Kennedy wrote. “Simply put, her election may not be subject to the normal campaign forces and concerns.”
Likewise, Democrats have awakened to the implications – good and bad — of what could be seen as a test vote in the Sixth District contest. Georgia WIN List, a Democratic-oriented group dedicated to electing pro-choice women to office, has provided Triebsch with one of the basics of a political campaign, i.e., a campaign manager.
Liz Ernst is the sister of Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst.
Whether the Senate District 32 race is a legitimate prelude to the Ossoff-Handel runoff can be argued both ways.
The dates of the two contests are nearly a month apart. The District 32 race, a state contest rather than a federal one, isn’t subject to a U.S. Justice Department requirement to allow more time for runoff ballots to flow in from overseas.
That would argue against an upset in the state Senate race. In quickly paced runoffs, older Republican voters show up. Democrats don’t. What’s more, 60 percent of the votes cast April 18 went to Kirkpatrick or other Republican candidates.
Then there’s the fact that, in the first round of balloting, the two Senate District 32 candidates were separated by only three percentage points – a margin that can be erased with a well-financed advertising barrage.
In the Sixth District contest, Ossoff finished with 48 percent of the vote. Handel lagged 28 points behind.
Within Senate District 32 alone, Ossoff pulled 41 percent of the vote. Handel, with 18 percent, edged out former state senator Judson Hill for second place.
(This is important, because Senate District 32 was Hill’s seat – which he vacated when he declared himself a congressional candidate. Such a weak showing in one’s former district could be considered a warning for GOP incumbents.)
Kirkpatrick has been running her race in traditional GOP fashion. She makes little mention of Trump, or the Ossoff-Handel contest.
“Maybe I’m not as paranoid as other people,” Kirkpatrick said in an interview. “I haven’t spent a lot of time focusing on the national race. Right now, I’m running against a single opponent with clear lines of demarcation between us.”
Kirkpatrick’s issues are the Fair Tax and the “repeal and replacement of Obamacare.” In one specific way, Kirkpatrick is more of a legacy candidate than Handel in the Sixth.
Kirkpatrick is the former co-president of Resurgens Orthopedics, a medical partnership which once boasted former congressman Tom Price as a founding board member. Price’s elevation to Trump's cabinet as secretary of health and human services is what has created the current Sixth District contest. “He and I worked side-by-side for over 20 years,” Kirkpatrick said. “I support what he’s trying to do in Washington.”
Kirkpatrick may be trying to separate herself from both Donald Trump and the Sixth District brawl, but Triebsch is not. She freely admits that Trump’s November election is the reason she has ventured into politics. “Honestly, if Hillary had won, I’d still be sitting back at home, doing laundry — just doing stuff,” said the mother of two.
And she has glued herself to Ossoff and his $8 million-plus campaign fund. It’s what’s gotten her this far.
“I grabbed onto his coattails and wouldn’t let go. He and I — we’ve never really spoken, but to say “Hello” and “How you doing?” and shake hands,” Triebsch said. “But I knew that wherever he was, I needed to be there.”
Ossoff and Triebsch share something else. Both campaigns are largely driven by Democratic women, a fact that was made obvious on Tuesday at a small fundraiser at a tavern in the shadow of the new Braves stadium — which is where Triebsch and I spoke.
Democratic men were present but outnumbered, and included DuBose Porter, the state party chairman. He quickly presented a surprise guest: Heather Fenton, Jon Ossoff’s mom.
So consider the link between these two contests to be complete. At stake on May 16 will be bragging rights in the final month of what could be the most important national contest of the summer.