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Opinion: Republicans’ Biggest Problem in Georgia Isn’t the Special Election

Health care looms large in the 6th District

Whether or not Democrat Jon Ossoff wins in Georgia’s 6th District next week, health care could spell serious trouble for the GOP in 2018, Murphy writes. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Whether or not Democrat Jon Ossoff wins in Georgia’s 6th District next week, health care could spell serious trouble for the GOP in 2018, Murphy writes. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

ATLANTA — Of all of the numbers that should give Republican leaders heartburn in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, where a special election runoff is scheduled for next Tuesday, the most worrisome number might be in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll from last week.

That survey of likely and early voters showed Democrat Jon Ossoff leading Republican Karen Handel by 7 points. That’s not great news in the district where its former congressman, HHS Secretary Tom Price, won 62 percent of the vote just six months ago. But special elections being what they are, no one can confidently predict the result of this contest until it happens next week.

The really bad news for Republicans, and the detail that could be foreshadowing a national slide for the GOP in the 2018 midterm elections, was buried deep inside the crosstabs of the AJC poll at Question #38: “Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the House GOP Obamacare replacement bill?” The answer: Just 25 percent of voters in this (usually) Republican district had a favorable opinion of the House-passed health care bill, while 62 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion of it. Among independent voters, the reaction was worse, with just 19 percent saying they favored the bill.

In the same AJC poll, 81 percent called health care “extremely important” or “very important” to their vote next Tuesday. And 94 percent said they were very or somewhat concerned about health care costs, compared to 64 percent who were very or someone concerned about Russian interference in U.S. affairs.

It’s all about health care

That tracks almost exactly with my own reporting. Of all of the issues that voters have raised to me in interviews about this race, Russia has almost never come up, but voters pointed to health care and the Republican health care bill again and again as dynamics they were watching closely.

Moms were worried about their children with pre-existing conditions and how they might fare under this legislation. Doctors were worried for their livelihoods. Some Republicans didn’t think the bill went far enough to repeal Obamacare in the first place.

It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t just any congressional district when it comes to health care reform and the House GOP bill known as the American Health Care Act. The suburban Atlanta voters here are better educated and wealthier than the rest of the state on average and many of them work in the health care industry and are highly informed on health care issues. The 6th District includes some of the South’s largest and most advanced hospitals. Overall, census figures show the health care industry is the second-largest employer in the district.

And ironically, the only reason the seat is vacant and being filled by a special election next Tuesday is that President Donald Trump plucked Price out of Congress to help write and pass the health care bill that has become a lightning rod in the race to replace him.

The AHCA had not yet passed the House of Representatives when Jon Ossoff won 48 percent of the vote in the April primary. But once the runoff field narrowed to the top two candidates and the AHCA passed the House, the health care legislation has been at the center of the most contentious moments between Ossoff and Handel. In the pair’s only televised debate last week, they faced off over the AHCA, which Ossoff called “unacceptable.” The Democrat said the bill, which Handel supports, “guts essential protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions.”

For her part, Handel insisted that the bill would not treat people with pre-existing conditions differently, although the CBO refutes that, and she echoed the most conservative Republicans already in the House by dismissing the CBO report that predicts the AHCA will force 23 million Americans off of health insurance.

“I reject the premise of the CBO,” she said, adding later that Obamacare is “collapsing on itself.”

“We have to repeal this bill and replace it with the new fix that’s coming through,” she said.

If Bernie Sanders’ supporters were hoping Ossoff would come out in favor of a single-payer system, they were probably disappointed when he suggested instead allowing patients to shop for insurance across state lines, an idea consistently floated by Republicans — including President Trump.

Flip a coin

If anyone says they know how the election next Tuesday will turn out, they’re lying to you. Nearly every poll, except the AJC poll, has been within the margin of error and the turnout models can only reflect anyone’s best guess about something that hasn’t happened yet.

But one poll result is so far outside the margin of error you can take it to the bank—voters do not like the Republican health care bill in the Sixth District of Georgia.

That Handel supports the bill and is struggling to pull away from Ossoff in a district that until Election Day 2016 was as reliable a Republican stronghold as could be found should be deeply concerning to Speaker Paul Ryan and to any Republican who voted for the AHCA in the House or plans to vote for it in the Senate.

If the voters in Tom Price’s district fully understand the bill that he helped write and they still don’t like it, the AHCA could spell serious trouble for the GOP at large in 2018, regardless of whether Ossoff or Handel manages to win next Tuesday. 

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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