What’s a winnable seat?

Increasingly, Democrats are turning their attention to the congressional race in GA-06, the district of Tom Price, Donald Trump’s new Health & Human Services Secretary. The first round of this election is April 18th*,  and it will inevitably come to be seen as a test case for how transferable the energy seen in ongoing anti-Trump protests is to defeating Republicans down ballot. Progressives have already raised around $600,000 to win the seat (Donate here).

But there’s another twist. While Tom Price won his race there decisively (62-38), it’s one of a handful of traditionally red, suburban districts that swung dramatically towards the Democratic presidential ticket in 2016. For example, while Mitt Romney won GA-06 by 23 points in 2012 (61-38), according to Daily Kos Elections, Donald Trump won by less than 2  points (48-47). Arguably, educated, suburban and often increasingly diverse districts like these could be key to Democrats future if they are unable to separate Trump from the less educated, whiter base that lifted him to victory last November.

This prompts a question: will Democrats be able to win these seats without appeasing their Democrat-curious Romney-voting electorates by tacking sharply to “the center”?  My instinct is yes. It deserves a closer look, but the chart below comes to mind. It’s from the excellent book Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels (buy it, read it).

screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-11-10-07-am
SOURCE: Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels

The illustration shows how the ideology of constituents** compares to the ideology of their representatives, based on roll call votes.

The broader question of why voters vote the way they do is obviously a deep and complex one, but it’s worth making a simple point. There are many reasons voters choose one candidate over another, from incumbency and name recognition, to national trends or simply candidate quality and missteps. Could suburban Georgia voters reject a candidate who comes to be seen as radically left-wing? Of course. But, based on the above, it seems likely that a good candidate in good conditions is just that. There are a lot of “moderate” districts that end up with representatives that vote in a very conservative way (in a large part because they are Republicans) and other, equally moderate districts with representatives that toe the party line in the other direction.

Democrats have real opportunities here.

* However, Georgia uses a runoff system, and if no candidate reaches 50% there is another election on June 20th for the top two contenders.
** Based on the massive 52,000-respondent Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) conducted by YouGov in 2012. The ideology measure combines response from a range of issue-based questions, from abortion to Obamacare.
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What’s a winnable seat?

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