The headlines this week read: "Republican Lawmakers Face Hostile Town-Hall Crowds" in the Atlantic, "GOP Town Halls Are Getting Flooded with Angry Constituents" in Mother Jones, and "Angry political meetings ignite US town halls" in the Financial Times.
The network and cable news stories are no different, highlighting congressional Republicans facing fiery, sometimes volatile constituents either unhappy with their congressional members or still burning from the November election results.The question is, will these dramatic events have the same disruptive impact that the Tea Party had on Democrats in 2010? Or are these just people unhappy with Donald Trump's election as president?
Thankfully, a ruby-red Republican House district once held by Newt Gingrich — one that Republicans have consistently won ever since by 60 percentage points, but that surprisingly went for Trump only narrowly over Hillary Clinton — is about to let us know. Between April and June, the Georgia congressional district will be the first real test of whether these congressional town-hall meetings, capturing so many national headlines and so much airtime during Congress's winter recess, are real and meaningful where it counts, at the ballot box.
Yes, Georgia will hold the first congressional race since Trump won the presidency — a special election on April 18 that will choose a successor for Health and Human Services Secretary and former congressman Tom Price. The date likely will be extended, however, because of the unusual field of 18 candidates, according to Kyle Kondik, political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "All of (them) will run together in a 'jungle' primary on April 18," Klondike said. "Assuming no one gets over 50 percent — very unlikely in such a huge field — the top two finishers, regardless of party, will advance to a runoff on June 20."
The contest for the Peach State's 6th congressional district, located in suburban Atlanta, is one of six across the country that House Democrats believe they can win. And they will be given the chance to prove that today's political unrest can be turned into an electoral bonanza, as well as a chance to win bragging rights that they can take back the congressional majority in 2018. "If they can keep it close or even win, it might be a sign that Trump's weakness in November is bleeding down the ballot in places like Georgia-6, which represents the kinds of districts that are crucial to a possible Democratic House takeover," said Kondik.
Kondik said the most prominent Democratic candidate is Jon Ossoff, a former aide to Rep. Hank Johnson: "Ossoff has raised a lot of money online and has become something of a Democratic darling. Whether he is a good ideological fit for the district remains to be seen — he may be too liberal — but if he can nationalize the race, his own personal politics may not matter as much. "Trump very narrowly won the district, an affluent, well-educated seat in the Atlanta suburbs. Four years earlier, Mitt Romney won it by 23 percentage points; Trump carried it by just 1.5 points. "It's the kind of district where Trump really underperformed Romney — the flip side of some of the white, working-class districts in the Northeast and Midwest where Clinton ran far behind Obama," Kondik said.
Of all the Republican-held districts in the country, Clinton ran further ahead of Obama in this Georgia district than in any other except Texas's 7th House District, a demographically similar seat in the Houston suburbs. Both districts where Clinton outperformed Obama have very similar characteristics: they either were more diverse or more educated than the national average. "The GOP enters the race favored," Kondik said, "but there's a chance of an upset, particularly if President Trump's standing is weaker in a couple of months than it is now."
While several prominent Republican candidates are in the race, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel probably starts as a mild favorite. She lost very competitive Republican primaries for governor and senator in recent years. One thing is certain: The media, outside groups and both political parties, as well as the White House, will turn this race into a national contest. And that will give everyone a glimpse, not of how the 2018 midterms will play out, but of just how nationalized the most local representation you have in Washington has become.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.