Democrats' deflating Georgia defeat

Democrats poured their hopes — and millions of dollars — into the special election in Georgia's 6th congressional district. Jon Ossoff still lost.

Jon Ossoff
(Image credit: Christopher Aluka Berry/Reuters)

After nearly half a year of intense politicking, two rounds of voting, and a flood of wildly overwrought analysis, the special election in Georgia's 6th congressional district is finally over. Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff, 52 percent to 48 percent, in the race to replace former Rep. Tom Price, who vacated the seat to become President Trump's health and human services secretary.

The Georgia race had transformed into a referendum on Trump due to the president's soft support in what is typically a reliable Republican district. Price won re-election in 2016 by 23 points, but Trump carried the district by just a single percentage point. Democrats spied an opportunity in all that ticket splitting to pick up the seat, and the party quickly consolidated behind Ossoff after he announced his candidacy in January.

More money was dumped into this special election than any other House race in history, nearly doubling the total spent on the previous title holder. Ossoff scraped together record-setting fundraising totals from small donors and got outside help from online activist groups. Handel, meanwhile, relied heavily on super PAC spending, especially from the Paul Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund.

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It's tough to divine many broader lessons from a race that was so thoroughly drowned in hype and money, but there are a few points to be drawn out from the results.

Republicans are going to spike the ball and have themselves a little victory party, but no amount of celebrating will distract from the danger signs everywhere for the GOP. The party barely managed to avoid losing the seat outright back in April, when Ossoff came within two percentage points of a majority in the district's jungle primary. The party establishment then had to dump a large fortune into the race to support Handel, who ended up winning the seat by just a few points. Republicans held the district, but they had to survive two close shaves.

This should worry the GOP because prior to Trump, GA-06 was a district the party held without breaking a sweat. Price never dropped below 60 percent of the vote in the 12 years he occupied the seat.

Republicans might console themselves by thinking that while the president was a drag on Handel's campaign, he wasn't toxic enough to cause real damage. And that could be true … for now. There are plenty of Republican voters who dislike Trump but not enough to abandon the GOP when Election Day rolls around. But it's still very early in the Trump presidency, which is already suffering through legislative sclerosis and a metastasizing Russia scandal. The danger for Republicans is that at some point between now and the midterm elections, those reluctant Trump voters may decide they've had enough. In districts like GA-06, where GOP support for the president is already relatively weak, the party can ill-afford any further softening of support from its base.

But make no mistake: Ossoff's narrow defeat is still hugely deflating for the Democrats.

Democrats held up the GA-06 race as the best chance of poaching a House seat from the GOP and delivering a (largely symbolic) rebuke to the Trump agenda. Unlike the recent special elections in Nebraska and Montana, the Democratic party establishment had in Ossoff a candidate it felt comfortable lining up behind: an affable and charismatic spokesman for unity politics and carefully calibrated center-left policy positions. For this particular district, that candidate profile wasn't the worst thing — many of the voters I talked to ahead of the April primary liked that Ossoff strived to be a positive and conciliatory answer to Trumpism.

But, when the votes were counted, he still lost. And Democrats are once again left trying to figure out what their second-place prize is.

To the extent that there's a lesson to be drawn here, it's that Democrats don't get points from Republicans for being polite and moderate. Ossoff was nobody's idea of a flaming leftist radical, and he was still tarred by Republicans and conservative super PACs as a liberal extremist and secret terrorist who was in the pocket of the Democratic leadership. GOP politics is a grimly tribal affair, and as much as suburban Republicans might dislike Trump, they hate Nancy Pelosi more.

That gets to the broader problem facing the Democrats as they figure out how to take on Trump: It isn't enough to assume that Republican voters will sour on Trump or the GOP, no matter how corrupt or inept the president and his party become.

Back in 2006, when the Democrats surged to power in both houses of Congress, they ran hard against the corruption and ineptitude of the GOP, but they also had a simple and unified policy message to take to voters: Protect Social Security and end the war in Iraq. Trump and the GOP are eager to hand today's Democrats a sword in the form of the destructively cruel and near-universally loathed American Health Care Act. Democrats just have to figure out how to swing it.

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Simon Maloy

Simon Maloy is a political writer and researcher in Washington, DC. His work has been published by The Huffington Post, The American Prospect, and Salon.