Politics & Policy

Georgia Special Election Goes Pretty Much as Predicted

Jon Ossoff speaks to supporters on election night, April 18, 2017. (Reuters photo: Marvin Gentry)
In an overhyped congressional race, the Democrat falls short of a majority, so there will be a runoff.

Roswell, Ga. – It was a rainy day in Georgia. As the skies released a downpour on Georgia’s sixth congressional district today, voters in Cobb, DeKalb, and Fulton counties braved the congested roads and difficult conditions to support their chosen candidate to replace Republican representative Tom Price. For now at least, their efforts have yielded only a delay.

Because no candidate reached 50 percent, 30-year-old Jon Ossoff, a former Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill, will face off in June against Karen Handel, a Republican who has served as Georgia’s secretary of state and on several local commissions. Though Ossoff dominated early voting, election-day votes pulled his total down over the course of the evening and kept him shy of an outright win. The headlines will have to wait.

For months, this race has been cast by activists and pundits as indicative of the road ahead for the current presidential administration, perhaps illustrating whether Donald Trump’s abrasive personality and controversial agenda have already turned off voters. But as the results rolled in on Tuesday evening, it became clear that the GA-06 special election has been perhaps the best example of the national media making nothing into something.

Early in the race, the Democratic party chose Ossoff as the most promising frontrunner, enabling him to amass over $8.3 million, over 90 percent of which came from outside the region. Journalists, activists, and celebrities insisted that Ossoff had an excellent chance to take over 50 percent of the vote — even in a packed field of 18 candidates — and pull off a shocking outright victory in the traditionally Republican district.

A look at the district’s history should have been enough to talk progressives out of placing their hopes on Ossoff’s slim shoulders. The sixth district has been consistently represented by a Republican since 1979, and both John McCain and Mitt Romney won it by over 20 percentage points in their presidential runs.

Indeed, the only thing that gave election analysts pause was Trump’s poor performance in the district last November, when he eked out a victory over Hillary Clinton by just one percentage point. This led some to believe that the demographics of the area were shifting, or at least that Trump himself had caused the shift, leaving in his wake a slew of disenchanted voters ready to flee to the Democratic party.

Tuesday’s results don’t fully clarify the role that the president has played in the fluctuating dynamics of GA-06. But they do prove that Trump hasn’t enraged so many Americans that a nearly unknown Democrat — even one with significant national funding and attention — could turn a solid GOP district blue overnight.

Tuesday’s results don’t fully clarify the role that the president has played in the fluctuating dynamics of GA-06.

On the ground, voters seemed divided over whether the president had played any role in their decisions. Some Ossoff supporters mentioned Trump right away. “I’m horrified at the current federal administration,” one woman told me after saying she cast her vote for the young Democrat. “He’s not my favorite candidate I’ve ever voted for, but the Democratic establishment got behind him and John Lewis got behind him, and that’s good enough for me.” (Lewis has represented Georgia’s fifth district since 1987.)

Another woman — who has lived in Dunwoody area for 20 years and yet has never voted in special elections or even in midterms — went to vote today only because of how intensely she dislikes Trump and his agenda. “People deserve to have everything they need: health care, education,” she explained to me. In particular, she said, she has been appalled by Trump’s desire to remove federal funding from Meals on Wheels and Planned Parenthood, adding that Ossoff will be the exact opposite of Trump and will go to Washington to fight the GOP on every issue, not ignoring anyone in need.

But other Democrats seemed less incensed about Trump. Ossoff’s is “the only name I could remember,” one such voter told me, illustrating just how effective the candidate’s $6 million in campaign spending was in driving up his name recognition in the district. “I believe in his principles,” she added. Though this young woman didn’t feel strongly either way about Trump, she didn’t vote for him, and she said Ossoff makes her feel “like we can get it right this time.”

Another Ossoff voter came to the U.S. from Tanzania when he was young and has spent the rest of his life in this region of Georgia, where he attended Georgia Tech and is now raising a family. Though he appreciates conservatism, he fears that the GOP isn’t realistic about the challenges facing the country.

“I believe in the Republican values of working hard and being able to make something of yourself,” he tells me. But, after having worked in international business, he says he has seen too many promising young people leave the U.S. to work elsewhere because of a lack of opportunity or policies that enable their success, problems that he believes the GOP refuses to recognize.

Several GOP voters, when asked about Ossoff, wrinkled their noses at the fact that the candidate doesn’t live in the sixth district. Though this information has been available before today, an election-day CNN interview brought attention to the fact that he lives a few miles outside the district with his girlfriend. Though this is permissible by constitutional rules, to GA-06 Republicans it just seems foolish. As one man asked me rhetorically, “What voter would like that?”

As for the Republicans, in the end the choice was clear. Across the district, fans of Karen Handel told me time and again that they chose her as the most experienced Republican who was most likely to succeed. At her election-night party, one man repeated to me the oft-quoted Bill Buckley line, that he wanted to choose the most conservative candidate who was electorally viable. For him, that was Karen Handel, and, judging by the results tonight, he seems to have shared that estimation with a plurality.

Longtime supporter Laura Strange told me at the event that Handel was the only GOP candidate who has both business knowledge and political acumen. “There are a lot of very impressive candidates in this race,” she said, “but none can combine those two pieces like she can.”

Just a few miles down the road, at GOP candidate Bob Gray’s results party, voters seemed much more passionate about Trump and his agenda. In fact, Marissa Hardwick and Jerry Ramsey, both of whom live in the part of Cobb County that is outside the confines of GA-06, volunteered constantly for Gray during the election, even though neither of them had ever participated in political campaigns, or paid much attention to them at all before Donald Trump. Their enthusiasm for the president transferred to Gray when he positioned himself as the closest to Trump of the many GOP candidates.

Other attendees insisted that Gray’s business experience made him a more attractive candidate than “career politicians,” a veiled slam against Handel. “We want less spending and taxes, as well as job growth. Those are the things a businessman understands,” one supporter told me.

Tonight’s results seem to indicate, though, that Gray’s alignment with Trump — to the point of donning camouflage waders and literally draining a swamp in a television ad — might have done more harm than good, or at the very least didn’t give him the edge he needed.

Much remains unclear about the political dynamics of the sixth district; this, evidently, was not a normal election. But the unnecessary national frenzy surrounding this race should teach us a few crucial lessons: Among them, that polling in special elections is largely unhelpful and often misleading, and that early voting doesn’t determine the fate of the race. It should teach us, too, that Democrats shouldn’t expect to flip decades-long Republican strongholds overnight — not even with the help of a scapegoat like Donald Trump. Politics moves slowly in America, and it doesn’t take much heed of those constructing narratives.

— Alexandra DeSanctis is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.


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