Politics & Policy

A Portentous Election in the Peach State

Ossoff speaks to supporters on election night, April 19, 2017. (Reuters photo: Marvin Gentry)
Jon Ossoff has an opportunity to turn Democrats’ dissatisfaction into winning voter turnout.

Atlanta — By the time Georgia’s sixth district votes in the special congressional election on June 20, $40 million — perhaps more than $130 per ballot — will have been spent to pick one-435th of one-half of one of the three branches of one of America’s governments. This is an expensive funeral for Tip O’Neill’s incessantly quoted and increasingly inapplicable axiom that “All politics is local.”

If the slender shoulders of the Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, occasionally sag, this is not just from understandable fatigue — on a recent morning he had just deplaned from an 18-hour fundraising sprint to New York. They bear the weight of his party’s hopes of recapturing a portion of national power — control of the House of Representatives — almost 18 months from now.

Democrats’ shoulders should slump if they cannot win at this propitious moment and in this congenial place. Republicans are tethered to the serial pratfalls of a president who preens as Zarathustra but emulates Buster Keaton. Last November, while Hillary Clinton was losing Georgia by 5.1 points, she lost this district by just 1.5 points. (Sixty percent of Americans live in districts that Clinton or Donald Trump carried by at least 20 points.) Ten times this district made Newt Gingrich its gift to the nation, and seven times it elected Tom Price — twice unopposed — with an average of 76.1 percent. (His departure to be secretary of health and human services occasioned this election.)

It is, however, the sort of place Democrats must win — affluent, more than 70 percent white — if they are to achieve the net gain of 24 seats necessary to retake the House. Republicans represent 23 districts that Clinton won. Nationally, the generic congressional poll — asking: Would you prefer Congress controlled by Democrats or Republicans? — favors Democrats, 46.2 to 39.2 percent.

Ossoff began his campaign with a vinegary slogan — “Make Trump Furious” — but he has become militantly vanilla, standing foursquare against government waste and for (herewith a smattering of anodyne rhetoric from his conversation) being “calm,” “dignified,” “level-headed,” and “not just another rock thrower,” and advancing “core values,” “fiscal responsibility,” and “unity.” Apparently, Democrats’ learning curve is not quite flat: They have learned from Clinton’s debacle that the cohort of people who are undecided about Trump is vanishingly small, so talk about something else.

Ossoff, who someday will look his current age (30) and is proud that he owns only two suits, moved four miles from undergraduate life at Georgetown University to a congressional staff job. His Republican opponent, Karen Handel, 55, is what a pro-Ossoff ad stigmatizes her as, and what he might aspire to be, a “career politician.” She has lost more elections than she has won but has been elected statewide as secretary of state.

The average voter turnout in the last six presidential elections (1996–2016) was 58.6 percent, and it was 39.1 percent in the last five midterm elections (1998–2014). But because dissatisfaction is a more powerful motivator than contentment, the party not holding the presidency usually sees improved turnout. Trump might resemble Barack Obama in one way: Many of his voters might not show up when his name is not on the ballot.

What Clinton largely failed to do last year, her 2016 opponent has done this year — energize Democrats.

Last month, in the 18-candidate jungle primary, Ossoff received 48.1 percent, just 1.9 percent short of the 50 percent that would have given him the seat. He won more votes (92,390) than the Democratic candidate received in the 2014 general election (71,400). Handel endorsed the House bill to replace Obamacare, a bill that helped to make Obamacare more popular than Obama’s campaigning for it did. Neither candidate is dwelling on health care, probably because, as a certain savant has said, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”

Handel finished second in the primary with 19.8 percent. Ossoff captured 64 percent of early and absentee voters — those who could not wait to express their dismay about things. What Clinton largely failed to do last year, her 2016 opponent has done this year — energize Democrats.

And Democrats, who are situational ethicists regarding money in politics, provided Ossoff enough to enable him to provide free Lyft rides for some primary voters. If he wins on June 20, Democrats probably will benefit in fundraising and candidate recruitment, giving them high hopes for big gains in 2018. The last time a party holding the White House and both houses of Congress did not lose seats in a midterm election, Dizzy Dean and his brother Paul each won two games for the Cardinals in the 1934 World Series.

— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2017 Washington Post Writers Group

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