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Story highlights

Julian Zelizer: Georgia 6th District vote will have bigger consequences than its outcome

Ossoff win could scare GOP away from Trump -- Handel victory could further split Dems

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) —  

When voters go to the polls for a special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, where Newt Gingrich broke into the halls of power back in 1978, the national media will be paying close attention to whether Democrat Jon Ossoff can defeat Republican Karen Handel.

An Ossoff victory would be the first Democratic special election success since President Donald Trump took office and, for the party, hopefully a harbinger of things to come in the 2018 midterms. Both parties have invested a huge amount of resources into this race – making it the most expensive House contest ever.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Regardless of who prevails, any predictions made after the election should be taken with a grain of salt. Special elections depend on a number of factors specific to the local electorate – and historically are not very accurate predictors of who wins the midterms.

The midterm elections of 2018 are also many months away. In our current turbulent world, who knows what the political landscape may look like months from now when most candidates start their campaigns.

The narrative that emerges from the election will have more important political consequences on Capitol Hill than the outcome of the vote itself. The interpretation of what happens – whether the chaos from the Trump administration has made the GOP vulnerable or whether even amid that chaos the party remains strong at the electoral level – could influence the way that Republicans handle a series of pivotal decisions on the Hill over the summer.

An Ossoff victory could be a wake-up call to Republicans about how much the Russia investigation is costing the GOP. If a district where Trump won by a narrow margin in November switches parties, that could scare some House members, as well as senators in swing states, away from their lockstep support for the administration. That support has been absolutely essential to containing the political fallout from the controversy and preventing the congressional hearings from becoming a much more hostile environment for the President and his advisers.

The Republicans also have a series of critical policy votes pending that could be affected by the outcome in the 6th District, with health care being the most important of all. Georgia could be enough to subvert any progress on moving this legislation. A group of senators is working on their version of a health care plan in top secret. Republican moderates or conservatives will have to make a difficult choice about whether to support a bill that is too stringent or too watered down.

Republican strength in this special election could embolden them to go along with the bill, while an Ossoff victory might confirm a steep electoral cost of the way health care has been handled – and the effects the Republican bill would have on Americans. Democrats would also feel much more energized to challenge the bill or tie up the business of the Senate. At the same time, Handel’s victory could persuade Republicans that the political fallout is not as severe as many think and to move forward with the bill.

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If Ossoff loses, the internal tensions within the Democratic Party are also likely to intensify. Ossoff has consciously sought to alienate as few people as possible. To the consternation of Bernie Sanders and others in his supporters in the party, Ossoff avoids the more fiery left-wing rhetoric that some Democrats are desperate to hear. If Ossoff loses, these critics within the Democratic Party will see his defeat as evidence that the tepid Clintonian response to Trump is the wrong way to go.

In all of these ways, Tuesday’s election could have huge political consequences in Washington – even if we don’t really learn much about what the elections will look like in November 2018. In the end, the stories we tell about what happens in the 6th will be more important than what the prognosticators can glean from the data.