While the Dec. 5 runoff election for the state Senate District 6 seat has yet to be held, one result is already certain: the district will flip to Democratic control for the first time in five years. In a surprise ending, the eight-way race ended up with Democrats Jen Jordan and Jaha Howard as the top two vote-getters.
The red-to-blue flip drew surprise and concern from some local and state Republican leaders. But Hunter Hill, the last person to hold the seat, and Joseph Knippenberg, an Oglethorpe University political science professor, say the result was mostly about Republicans cannibalizing the vote.
“Too many Republican candidates cost the party a seat,” said Knippenberg, noting that the Democratic candidates combined won under 50 percent of the votes. “It isn’t evidence of an even more resurgent Democratic resistance to Trumpism in affluent suburbs. It’s just an unusual result produced by unusual circumstances which tells us exactly nothing about how the race will turn out next time.”
That next time comes in less than a year, as the special election only fills Hill’s unexpired term after he resigned to run for governor. Knippenberg said that, while Republicans hold the advantage in the number of voters, they should not take a regular-election win for granted in the district next year.
“I’m not about to predict that Republicans should just assume that they’ll win the seat back in 2018,” he said. “A lot will depend on the energy generated by the races at the top of the ballot, and the quality of the candidates and organizations in the district.”
“I don’t like the result,” Hill, a Smyrna Republican, said of the Nov. 7 special election, which shed five Republican contenders. “I wanted to make sure my constituents were well-represented, and now I don’t think they will be.”
On the other hand, Hill said, he resigned the seat to focus on his gubernatorial run and ensure his constituents could elect a replacement rather than have one appointed, and that’s what they’re doing.
“The district is a very evenly split district,” Hill said when asked about the local political significance of the flip. He noted that five candidates split the Republican vote and the Democrats combined got under 50 percent, so “it becomes a math problem.” He indicated he was surprised that a Republican did not come out on top.
District 6 includes southern Cobb County, a large swath of northern Buckhead, and sections of southern and central areas of Sandy Springs.
The district has long been a partisan battleground. For many years, it was a Cobb-centered seat held for four terms by Democrat Doug Stoner. In a highly contentious 2011 redistricting, the Republican-led legislature redrew the district to include the Buckhead and Sandy Springs areas. Republicans said that just reflected population changes. Democrats argued it was a move to flip the district Republican and ensure a supermajority that could override vetoes and push state constitutional amendments.
The seat indeed flipped Republican with Hill’s election in 2012. But it was not solidly Republican. Last year, Hill barely defeated Howard, 52 to 48 percent, in one of the electoral close calls that drew the attention of local GOP leaders.
Precinct-based results in this year’s special election showed Republican candidates winning most votes in Buckhead’s single-family suburban areas. But Jordan won a plurality in central Buckhead and many of the Sandy Springs precincts.
The result cleared surprised many in the GOP. Several local Republican officials early on Election Night predicted a runoff between two Republicans – though each had different guesses about which two Republicans it would be. Afterward, state Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), a candidate for Georgia secretary of state, proposed that special elections be required to have a party primary.
Knippenberg said the result showed how a special election “rewards campaigns with the best organizations and the most intense supporters.” He noted the low turnout — about 24,000 people voted, while Hill alone drew 42,000 votes in his win last year — and that the GOP’s total share of the vote, 50.7 percent, was similar to Hill’s winning share in 2016.
“The most intense and active GOP voters barely outnumber the most intense and active Democratic voters [in the district],” Knippenberg said. “A primary here would have helped the Republicans, as would have a strong local organization that could have discouraged one or two or three of the GOP contenders.”