In a prominent special election for Georgia’s sixth congressional district, Republican Karen Handel defeated Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff, retaining the seat vacated by United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price. Handel won the suburban Atlanta district with 53 percent of the vote, retaining a seat Republicans have held since 1979.
• If not the most prominent special election in American history, the “Georgia Six” race was certainly the most expensive with candidates and external groups spending over $55 million. In an era of big political money, this is still a staggering amount. For perspective, the most expensive 2016 House race – Florida District 18 – totaled only $26.7 million in combined candidate and outside spending; there too, a deluge of Democratic money wasn’t able to flip a historically red district.
• The financial paper-trail that fueled the race also tells an interesting story. Ossoff’s campaign raised $23.6 million in donations – outpacing Handel’s $4.5 million – though only 14 percent of itemized contributions, in which individual donors gave at $200 dollars, came from Georgia. Rather, most itemized contributions came from outside Democratic states like California and New York, highlighting the national and symbolic importance of the race.
Just how much of an outlier is this statistic? According to the New York Times, of the open-seat House candidates who raised over $100,000 in 2016, “the median in-state percentage of contributions was 82 percent.” Where Handel made up financial ground was through spending by outside groups, namely super PACs such as the Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which chipped in just over $6 million each to flood the district with advertisements.
• Both sides are claiming victories in the wake of the special election. In a race that was widely seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump, the Republican narrative is plain: support for the beleaguered administration is still present amongst the general American populace. For a Commander-in-Chief obsessed with “winning,” the Georgia Six race will provide an undeniable short-term boon for his policies and office – a concrete victory in a world jaded with “fake news” and tilted media coverage. It will provide the POTUS with the same victory lap as last month’s Montana Special Election, which saw his dog in the race – Republican Greg Gianforte – pick up the congressional seat despite body-slamming a journalist the day prior to the election.
For Democrats, this is another agonizingly ‘close but no cigar’ moment. Ossoff had been only 3,700 votes shy of winning the election outright in April.
Turning a historically red district purple will amount to a symbolic victory, if little else.
The good news for the Democrats is that the campaign of Jon Ossoff, a 30-year old former congressional staffer, showed a grassroots fervor that hadn’t been seen in nearly a decade. Ossoff was able to assemble more than 12,000 volunteers and six field offices, with dozens of staffers.
The campaign ultimately closed a 2016 23-point gap to a two-point margin of loss last night. Democratic officials expect this enthusiasm to grow as the midterm elections near.
|Karen Handel (Republican)||51.9%||134,595|
|Jon Ossoff (Democratic)||48.1%||124,893|
• A hard truth is becoming apparent for Democratic pollsters. It’s not simply enough to be anti-Trump; It’s not enough to break hard-standing political allegiances because of the five special elections since Donald Trump’s ascendency, Democratic candidates have failed to pull off a single underdog victory, despite being bolstered by record-breaking political spending and a POTUS with an approval rating dipping below 40 percent. While closing the margins in these districts may forecast brighter days ahead for the midterm elections, it does little now to provide a tangible victory for a party rich on grass-root enthusiasm and poor in D.C. representation.
• The optimism in flipping Georgia’s sixth was not that it was, or had ever historically been, a toss-up district. Republican stalwart Newt Gingrich lorded over this district for 20 years. In 2016, Tom Price won re-election with 61.6 percent of the vote. Rather, the district was pegged as a location where begrudging Trump voters were present. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, “President Trump won the 2016 election because he was able to win a sizable share of voters who didn’t like him.” Demographically, Georgia’s sixth congressional district fit the bill – a mostly wealthy and well-educated Atlanta suburb who cared less about Trump’s MAGA platform and more about traditional Republican ideals: taxes, government spending and illegal immigration.
• It seems apparent that the “not one of us” theme which accused Ossoff of not living within the district and was replayed incessantly by Handel in negative advertisements was a resonating message for many voters. The reality of the situation mattered little with the electorate. Jon Ossoff lived three miles from the district’s borders, having moved there recently to support his fiancée as she finished medical school. Advertisements successfully repeated the message: He’s just not one of us. Handel told reporters on the day of the election, “the people of the Sixth, you actually want someone who lives in this district; you want one of your neighbors.” It’s a ploy building off the natural tribalism of politics, insinuating an otherness in a traditional community, and a theme that may very well be weaponized by Republican candidates in coming races.