Brendan Byrne, 1973; Jon Ossoff, 2017?

Byrne and Ali

In the most expensive race for a House of Representatives seat in history, Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handle had until recently been running even in the June 20 special election contest to succeed Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price as the representative from Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. Republican Price had been elected to this seat in seven straight elections, and the conventional wisdom was that Handel in the end would prevail.

All this changed, however, with the Tuesday Night Massacre of May 9, 2017, namely, the firing by President Donald Trump of FBI Director James Comey. This controversy has resulted in Ossoff jumping out to a seven-point lead. He is now viewed as a highly likely winner, and the political consequences of his victory would be enormous.

As a result of an Ossoff victory, there would be a decided increase in the number of Senators and Representatives withdrawing their support from Trump and being willing to consider his impeachment and removal from office. Democratic fundraising for the 2018 House of Representatives would attain record levels, and the likelihood of the election of a Democratic House of Representatives in 2018 would increase dramatically. All this would further endanger the survival of the Donald Trump presidency.

For those of us who participate in and follow New Jersey politics, the historical antecedent of the Georgia Sixth District Election is the 1973 landslide New Jersey gubernatorial election of Democratic Judge Brendan Byrne over Republican Congressman Charles Sandman.

Throughout the campaign, Byrne had been running comfortably ahead of Sandman, who had defeated incumbent Governor Bill Cahill in the primaries. Byrne’s key message was one of unquestioned integrity as a Board of Public Utilities Commissioners President, Essex County Prosecutor, and judge. The issue of ethics, integrity, and trust was most relevant in view of the scandals of the Cahill administration.

Then came the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973, in which President Nixon fired Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, Attorney General Elliot Richardson, and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. The New Jersey gubernatorial election became a referendum on Watergate. The Byrne lead rose from 20 percent to his election day 35-point margin. Byrne won every county except Sandman’s home county of Cape May. One year later, Sandman lost his Congressional seat to Democrat Bill Hughes.

The national consequences of Byrne’s victory were immediate and far reaching. The trend of key national Republicans willing to support the impeachment of Nixon accelerated. Democratic fundraising for the 1974 Congressional races skyrocketed. Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974 after the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings conducted by committee chair Peter Rodino of Newark, New Jersey.

In the 1974 Congressional elections, the Democrats made major gains in the House and Senate. One of the insurgent Democrats first elected to the House of Representatives in that election was a young attorney and Assemblyman from Camden County, New Jersey, Jim Florio.

The similarities between the Georgia Sixth District election of 2017 and the New Jersey gubernatorial election of 1973 are remarkable. Nancy Pelosi, give Jim Florio a call.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.

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