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Georgia Special Election Makes American History; Voters’ Education Marks the Race’s Significance

By Kevin Mahnken | June 20, 2017

Photo: Getty Images
Today’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District (GA-06), already marked by tens of millions of dollars of outside spending and President Trump’s personal Twittervention, is a truly national story. Not only is it the most expensive House race in American history, but it’s also being watched as a pressure test for the power of the democratic system in the Trump era.
And as Nate Cohn points out in The New York Times, the suspense surrounding the race is the product of a political trend that goes well beyond the district’s boundaries. As he puts it, “Education explains why the race is competitive at all.”
There are 15 districts where more than half of adults possess a college degree, and only one is represented by a Republican: Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, narrowly held in 2016 by Rep. Barbara Comstock. The other, GA-06, is vacant pending today’s election results, but it has been dominated by Republicans since Newt Gingrich first won it in 1978. And while former representative Tom Price enjoyed a healthy victory last November before being appointed secretary of health and human services, Donald Trump pipped Hillary Clinton there by just 1.5 points.

(Photo courtesy The Upshot)
GA-06 is, in the parlance of journalist Ron Brownstein, a “lo-hi” district, i.e., one with low levels of diversity and high levels of education compared with the national average. Control over these districts is divided roughly evenly between Republicans and Democrats (Republicans hold a total of 44 seats, to Democrats’ 39), and their elections are often closely fought. That’s why — even as low-education areas in Democratic strongholds like Pennsylvania and Michigan were falling to Trump — several traditionally red districts gave Clinton a surprising majority in 2016.
Trump held onto GA-06 by the skin of his teeth, but lost Rep. Leonard Lance’s NJ-7, Rep. Pat Meehan’s PA-7, and Comstock’s VA-10, all of which had leaned toward Mitt Romney in 2012. Kevin Yoder’s KS-03, in the suburbs of Kansas City, has been represented by a Republican in Congress for 64 of the last 78 years, but it swung to Hillary Clinton when Trump dramatically underperformed Romney.
GA-06 has a greater percentage of college graduates than all of those seats. In fact, while Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel both belong to the district’s “hi” percentage of white voters, Handel actually falls into the “lo” proportion of adults without a college degree. Though she attended the University of Maryland, she never graduated — a fact that has been used against her by political opponents in past elections. (Ossoff holds degrees from both Georgetown and the London School of Economics.)
Democrats haven’t directly appealed to the district’s voters on grounds of educational attainment. But school clearly isn’t far from their minds: In the midst of a costly race, they’ve conducted some fundraising by using Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a prolific Republican donor, as a bogeyman.
Whether that line appeals to the district’s impeccably credentialed voters will be evident after voting closes tonight.


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