Sandy Springs, Ga. — The last time Jon Ossoff failed to win a seat in the U.S. House, it was pouring all day, too. On a blustery Election Day two months ago, the young Democrat fell just short of the 50 percent needed to turn Georgia’s sixth district blue for the first time since 1979.
Yesterday, the skies opened on the district once again, and, just like last time, Ossoff fell short of victory. His worthy competitor, longtime Georgia politician Karen Handel, took 52.7 percent of the vote to top Ossoff’s 47.3. Despite raising more than $23 million during the campaign, Ossoff ultimately was unable to overcome the district’s solid Republican inclination.
Polls over the last two months consistently gave Ossoff a lead of several percentage points, but on election eve, Handel edged into the lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average, hinting at tonight’s victory. Over 243,000 residents of the sixth district turned out to vote in the special election, which took place exactly two months after April’s “jungle primary” that saw more than a dozen candidates compete.
In April, streets all across the district displayed an array of colorful election posters, each jockeying for the attention of passersby. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Ossoff had earned his plethora of front-yard signs, raising more than $8 million in just a few months and giving every indication that he could win the requisite 50 percent of the vote to go straight to Congress.
When Ossoff missed the mark by a hair, attention turned to Handel, a known entity in the state. After several failed runs for prominent public offices, she has finally achieved victory in what was probably the most hard-fought contest of them all. Her triumph tonight was unexpected in many quarters — she had been hampered in the primary by the presence of several viable GOP candidates, all of whom were competing for the same funding and the district’s reliable red votes.
Since that first round of voting, most analysis has ignored the role that April’s huge candidate field played in Ossoff’s near-win. While the Democratic party had clearly settled on him as their representative, Republicans were extremely divided. But those factions rallied yesterday, lifting Handel to her victory over the Democratic hopeful.
Ossoff’s defeat comes as a significant blow to the Democratic party, which loudly proclaimed that the special election was a referendum on the young presidency of Donald Trump. Indeed, Ossoff’s overflow of cash was largely fueled by the intense national attention paid to the sixth-district race. But that cash might’ve given a clue to his downfall: The vast majority of donations to his campaign came from outside of Georgia. The fact that, over a two-month span, 7,000 Californians gave to the Democrat compared with 800 Georgians should’ve troubled anyone invested in an Ossoff win. While the narrative was overblown to begin with, Handel’s win tonight throws water on the progressives’ claim that Trump is severely damaging the GOP in traditionally Republican areas.
Handel’s win tonight throws water on the progressives’ claim that Trump is severely damaging the GOP in traditionally Republican areas.
Democrats will probably argue that even coming close to defeating a Republican in Georgia’s sixth is a victory in itself. There’s something to that. But Handel’s non-incumbent status matters; Ossoff wasn’t running against Tom Price or Newt Gingrich, both of whom represented the district for decades. That fact complicated this race significantly, as does Ossoff’s staggering fundraising haul. As a result, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions about the strength of the Democratic party in the district and beyond.
Both parties ought to carry serious lessons away from this race — the most expensive House race in U.S. history, by far. But it ought to be a moment of particular reflection for Democrats, who poured unprecedented levels of funding and precious political energy into an effort that failed. At the very least, yesterday’s results should show the Left that they will need to devise a new playbook if they hope to succeed in 2018.
— Alexandra DeSanctis is a National Review Institute William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.