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Georgia special election: One Dem strategist thinks the future is "Panera voters"

So we went to one

Panera Bread Agrees To Be Purchased From Owner Of Krispy Kreme Donuts Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

ROSWELL, Georgia — Political strategist Brian Fallon argued that the Democratic Party’s path to power lay through “the Panera Bread Houses of America” — a reference to the affluent, suburban communities expected to swing Democratic.

Fallon, who worked on the Hillary Clinton campaign, sees opportunities in districts like the one that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price vacated, districts that swung from Mitt Romney to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and in which Donald Trump’s dismal approval ratings might put Democrats over the top. He identified 23 such districts in an interview with Vox in an interview in April.

These voters could prove decisive in the seats Democrats likely need to flip to win the House — Democrats are interested in districts exactly like this district, the Georgia Sixth, because they are filled highly educated, affluent voters where Trump either narrowly won or Clinton beat him. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver has documented, Clinton excelled in rich suburban districts in 2016, with her vote-margin improving on Obama’s by an average of 8 points in the country’s most educated districts. These are the places where the president is unpopular — and Republicans’ efforts to replace Obamacare are even more unpopular. To retake the House in 2018, Democrats are looking at exactly these kinds of districts.

But anecdotally at least, Republicans seem to be sticking with the Republican party — opting for Republican Karen Handel instead of Democrat Jon Ossoff. At a Panera off of Woodstock Road in Roswell on the way to an Ossoff campaign event on Monday — and found a chilly reception for the Democratic candidate.

"Progressivism? That's just another name for Maoism and communism, another sect of it," says Richard Decker, 69. His wife, Kay Decker, also 69, nodded in agreement as she tucked into a Fuji chicken apple salad. “I think she’s going to win: I think it’s going to be a surprise like Trump, because a lot of the people who like her are quieter,” Kay Decker said. “We’ve kept quiet about it.”

Of course, a handful of interviews at one Panera amounts to a statistically meaningless anecdote, and Tuesday may yet prove a stirring endorsement of Fallon’s point that the most vulnerable Republican House districts are in the suburban communities that swung for Hillary Clinton.

“The one trend we did see in 2016 was that concern about Trump’s temperament and fitness to be president of the United States enabled the Democrat to peel off a lot of Republican-leaning voters in suburban districts that went for Mitt Romney,” Fallon, Clinton’s former press secretary, told me this April.

Indeed, the race is deadlocked in recent polls. With the district historically swinging to the Republican candidate by 20 points or more, a win for Ossoff would be a genuine upset that might make Republicans extremely nervous for the upcoming 2016 elections.

Richard Decker, 69. (Vox / Jeff Stein)

But stopping at the Panera did underscore the extent to which white suburban voters may still prove reliable Republican votes.

“I wasn’t thrilled with either choice, but I was tired of money from outside the district coming in trying to influence our election,” said Sherri, 60, as she left the Panera, about her vote for Handel.

A few miles down the road, Ossoff volunteers were picking up food from a Burger King before heading to a campaign event. "I think we’re going to win the Paneras and the Burger Kings of Georgia," said Andrew Nurmi, 18, with a grin.

But at two narrow outdoor tables just outside the fast food joint, the election was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind until a reporter arrived. Three young men who looked to be in their early 20s passed around a cigarette, and said that neither they nor anyone they knew would be voting on Tuesday. One, who gave his name as Nick Brendan and his age as 21, said he thought the neighborhood was over-policed, but didn’t believe either candidate was interested in changing that.

“I’ve seen [Ossoff] talk on the YouTube ads — I skip right through them because I’m trying to get to the video,” Brendan said. “I hate Congress, government, and the presidency. I hate it all. And if I voted, it wouldn’t make a difference anyway.

At a Waffle House in Sandy Springs a few hours later, 21-year-old Neek Amie and his friend “Q” also said they had no plans to vote. "I don’t partake in this government system,” Amie said. “I wish I could just secede from America.”