Elections

The Return of Jon Ossoff and Karen Handel

Democrat Jon Ossoff addresses his supporters after his defeat in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District special election in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., June 20, 2017. (Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters)
The candidates in the sixth district’s 2017 special election will face incumbents in November after winning their respective primaries this week.

Jon Ossoff was Beto O’Rourke before Beto O’Rourke: A hype-generating machine whose media acclaim far exceeded his electoral odds.

Ossoff, a former Democratic staffer with little political experience to speak of, first appeared on the electoral scene in the spring of 2017, when he tried and failed to turn the sixth congressional district blue. He ran in a special election — the first big contest since Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House — against Republican Karen Handel to fill the seat, which had been vacated by Tom Price when Price left to become Trump’s secretary of health and human services.

Despite the millions of dollars that poured into Ossoff’s campaign from outside the state — the fruit of a fundraising effort spearheaded by progressive activists looking for ways to channel the growing “Resistance” to the president — Handel ended up winning by more than five points, claiming victory in the most expensive House race ever run.

For anyone who managed to cover the race without an investment in Ossoff’s success or the anti-Trump symbolism of his effort, the outcome wasn’t terribly surprising. Georgia’s sixth district has never been much of a Democratic stronghold, though today it is represented by a Democrat. Trump only won the district by one point in the 2016 general election, which encouraged pundits and analysts searching for reasons to believe Ossoff was the Democratic Party’s next great hope. But Georgia’s Republican primary that year is the key to understanding both Trump’s narrow general-election win and Ossoff’s failure: Trump handily took all but four counties, three of which make up the sixth district, and all of which were won by Florida senator Marco Rubio.

In other words, the district hadn’t suddenly become a Democratic stronghold packed with Hillary Clinton supporters; it was full of Republicans who disliked Trump.

The special election was thus a dud for Democrats hoping it would prove that even red states were rejecting the Republican Party on account of Trump. But the last few years have revealed further shifts. In the 2018 midterms, Handel lost her reelection race to local Democrat Lucy McBath by a mere 4,000 votes. The results seemed to confirm what 2017 had already suggested: The sixth district leans red, but it also leans away from Trump.

This year, both Ossoff and Handel are back, but not to face each other. Earlier this week, Ossoff won a competitive primary to become the Democratic nominee for Senate, achieving 50 percent of the vote and saving himself from a runoff. He will face incumbent Republican David Perdue in the general election. Meanwhile, Handel won the GOP primary in her old district, securing a rematch with McBath.

Democrats and their allies in the media are determined to believe that Georgia — the home of the massively hyped, failed gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — is one of the key Republican strongholds that might turn blue this year. And there’s some reason to think that the GOP hold on the state is loosening: Even setting aside McBath’s win in 2018, Trump’s net approval rating among Georgians has dropped by 16 points since he was first elected.

In early May, a GOP polling firm found Trump in a dead heat with presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden statewide. Forty-six percent of likely voters said they’d back the president, 47 percent said they’d support Biden, and 5 percent were undecided. The same survey found that Perdue had a narrow 43 percent to 41 percent lead over Ossoff in a theoretical general-election matchup, with 8 percent of voters undecided.

Then again, not every trend foretells trouble for Georgia Republicans. In another tight race in the 2018 midterms, Republican congressman Rob Woodall managed to hang on to his seat in the seventh district, which, like the sixth, spans parts of Atlanta’s northern suburbs. And another poll in May found that Perdue had a larger lead on Ossoff among likely voters, 45 percent to 39 percent with 12 percent undecided.

It seems clear that Perdue is the favorite, but national Republicans have already made clear that they take Ossoff seriously: They wasted no time in attacking him after he secured his party’s nomination.

“Jon Ossoff may be one of the most unprepared and unaccomplished individuals ever to seek this office,” a National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson said after Ossoff’s primary victory. “His reliance on an embellished resume, insider liberal connections, and campaign cash from far-left New York and Hollywood donors is why Georgia voters can’t trust Ossoff to represent their values.”

Still, there’s no overestimating the help Ossoff will receive from a press corps bound and determined to believe in him. For its part, the New York Times recently deemed his failed 2017 campaign “a spirited but unsuccessful” effort.

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