Democrat Jon Ossoff Galvanized Nationwide Support, But Fell Short in Historically GOP District
In a long-awaited, much-watched runoff seen across the country as an early verdict on Trump’s presidency, youthful Democrat newcomer Jon Ossoff failed to beat veteran Republican officeholder Karen Handel in the race for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District.
Seen from afar, the House race took on outsized significance, compared to Montana’s May 25 vote where maverick grassroots Democrat Rob Quist lost to billionaire Republican Greg Gianforte by 6 points. Also Tuesday, Republican Ralph Norman beat Democrat Archie Parnell, a wealthy retired attorney, in South Carolina’s Fifth House District.
These seats opened up after Trump appointed the incumbents to his Cabinet: Georgia’s Tom Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services, Montana’s Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior and South Carolina’s Nick Mulvaney as Budget Director.
The results are a stark reminder to Democrats of the steep climb they face as they look to 2018’s congressional midterms. The GOP will see the wins as a validation of their agenda, as the party has not lost one House election since Trump took office. While each state’s dynamics are different, the Democratic Party and its allies threw everything they had into Ossoff’s candidacy. In both of Tuesday's elections, voter turnout broke records for off-year contests. But it was not enough for Democrats to win.
"The fact that this race was close at all shows that voters are sick and tired of candidates who obsess over restricting access to abortion instead of focusing on the priorities of hardworking families," said NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue in a statement about the Georgia results. "In a district that elected a Republican by 23 points just seven months ago, this narrow election result proves that momentum is shifting away from the Republican Party and their anti-choice agenda."
Both Georgia and South Carolina use entirely paperless voting machines, meaning there is no possibility of an audit or recount to verify the vote.
The Georgia race broke records for the most pricey House contest ever, with Ossoff raising $23 million and getting boosts from luminaries like Bernie Sanders and Hollywood stars, as well 12,000 volunteers the 30-year-old film producer recruited. Handel, an ex-Secretary of State who lost prior races for state senate and governor, was joined on the trail by the GOP heavyweights: House Speaker Paul Ryan, Vice President Mike Pence and President Trump, who told her, “You better win.”
Outside the district, the race has become a mirror of national sentiment. Democratic fundraising operations have depicted it as a do-or-die moment for the party, with a millennial candidate who stands somewhere between the youthful Berniecrats and moderate Hillary centrists. The race has been considered a harbinger of their prospects in 2018’s midterms; something that might be truer if the party had spent equally on Ossoff and 2017’s other House contenders. It didn’t, showing a centrist bias. (It spent $500,000 on Quist and $5 million on Ossoff.)
As a candidate, Ossoff seemed to follow the same course taken by many. A firebrand as a long shot, he became more cautious as he rose in the polls, seemingly following the dictum of Tip O’Neill, the 1980s Democratic House Speaker who always played to locals, saying, “dance with the ones that brung ya.” Ossoff grew up in the district’s well-off suburbs, attended private school before college and took unthreatening stances to the historically Republican district’s voters. He began with the slogan, “Make Trump Furious,” but more recently kept saying his loyalty would be to his district. He was reluctant to raise taxes on the wealthy or to support single-payer health care, among other pro-business positions.
“Voters here want to see a federal government that wastes less money, that sets the right priorities—like higher education, infrastructure, high-tech research, to grow metro Atlanta’s economy—that’s working to make health care more accessible and affordable and that isn’t getting drawn into the partisan swamp,” Ossoff told the New Yorker on Friday. He repeatedly rejected partisan labels, called himself a pragmatist and said he’d to do whatever benefits his district, even if it meant working with Trump.
Fundraising emails from a host of Democratic Party and progressive groups did not emphasize his centrism, not after a presidential race where forceful outsiders like Sanders and Trump grabbed the voting public. But Ossoff seemed to be appealing to the higher-minded sensibilities of voters, not reactionary red meat impulses. When Handel said in a televised debate in response to a minimum wage question, “I do not support a livable wage,” Ossoff did not use the clip for his ads. When a high-tech data security expert hacked into the paperless computer systems Georgia uses to run its elections, leading to a Politico scoop about vulnerable voting systems, Ossoff responded he had “full confidence in the integrity of our elections.” When asked about firing Trump, he avoided using the word “impeach.”
The gamble that Ossoff seemed to be waging was not whether he was a cure for Democrats still wrestling with the post-2016 Bernie-Hillary divides. The gamble was whether a longtime Republican district would embrace him as a youthful post-partisan harbinger of the future—whereas Handel was a career politician far more steeped in the past and established right-wing doctrines. The Sixth District didn’t just elect Tom Price, a physician endlessly ranting about the need to overturn Obamacare; it also elected Newt Gingrich, whose mid-1990s “Contract with America” was a precursor to today’s GOP drive to dismantle domestic social safety nets.
Handel is a traditional right-leaning Republican careerist. As Secretary of State, she embraced tougher voting laws designed to reduce turnout among non-wealthy non-whites, such as a stricter ID requirement to get a ballot. She boasted about going after voter fraud—a non-issue that has been the GOP’s go-to excuse to pass a raft of new voter suppression measures. Her successor, Brian Kemp, doubled down on this template, refusing to process tens of thousands of voter registration forms from voter drives led by the state’s leading black politicians.
Georgia and South Carolina are also among the states where Republicans controlled the political mapmaking process for this decade, meaning both House races for open seats were in districts with many more reliable Republican voters compared to reliable Democrats. Even if fewer reliable Republicans turned out Tuesday because they had been put off by Trump and Washington’s antics, the GOP still had a starting line advantage of a half-dozen percentage points—more than the day’s margins of victory. Handel is firmly inside the GOP cadre that has tinkered with the nuts and bolts of elections to hold power and defend the party’s aging white base. Ossoff did not go near this subject in his appeal to the Sixth’s voters. His attack ads criticized Handel for using taxpayer funds for perks while Secretary of State and for blocking funding of Planned Parenthood cancer screenings while she was vice-president of a breast cancer charity.
Handel, in turn, smeared Ossoff with guilt-by-association attacks. She hit him for ties to West-Coast liberals, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and even Al Jazeera. Outside groups in her camp accused Ossoff’s supporters of cheering when a gunman opened fire on House Republicans at a baseball practice last week. While this is ludicrous, it's typical fare from the GOP camp, although not quite what you’d expect in better-educated suburbs.
Ossoff’s messaging strategy seemed to be a repeat of what was seen in the presidential election in once deep-red Orange County, California. Last fall, an educated and sophisticated GOP populace supported Hillary Clinton and not Donald Trump. But California is a long way from Georgia. Tuesday night’s election results showed that while Atlanta is a cosmopolitan capital of the South, its largely white suburbs cast their electoral lot more with a known partisan past than with an unknown post-partisan future. How much the district’s extreme gerrymandering played into the result is unknown.
Everyone will have their theories about what happened and why. But there’s an indisputable bottom line. Democrats are now zero-for-three in post-2016 House elections. Tom Perez, Keith Ellison and other top Democratic National Committee officials need to understand what their opposition consists of before they put out the call to help other candidates later this year and in 2018. So far, they've seen Democrats close in on Republicans—just not enough to win.