Karen Handel beats Jon Ossoff in Georgia: A major setback for Democrats?

Despite a huge influx of money and massive media attention, Jon Ossoff falls short in Georgia special election

Published June 21, 2017 5:00AM (EDT)

Karen Handel addresses supporters gathered at Hyatt Regency at Villa Christina on June 20, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.   (Getty/Jessica McGowan)
Karen Handel addresses supporters gathered at Hyatt Regency at Villa Christina on June 20, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Getty/Jessica McGowan)

Republican Karen Handel pulled off a narrow victory on Tuesday night in a special election in Georgia's 6th Congressional District that had mesmerized the political world. She defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff with 52 percent of the vote to his 48 percent share with all precincts reporting.

The Georgia race was one that Democrats had hoped to flip their way as a sign of mounting resistance against President Donald Trump. But the dynamics of the 6th district were always stacked against them, despite the tens of millions of dollars in donations that flowed into Ossoff's campaign.

No Democrat has held this seat in the northern Atlanta suburbs since 1979. In the last regular election in November 2016, Republican Tom Price, who is now the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, was re-elected with 62 percent of the vote.

Despite the historical odds, Ossoff still appeared to hold a minuscule lead in a poll that had been released two days before the election by a Georgia TV station. But his advantage was within the survey's margin of error, and by Tuesday morning Republicans appeared confident while leading Democrats were already spinning a possible defeat as a moral victory.

After Price vacated his seat to join Trump's Cabinet, some progressive activists seized on the race as a potential target, largely because Trump had barely defeated Hillary Clinton in the 6th district, with a 48 percent share of the vote to her 47 percent take.

Tuesday's vote was a runoff contest mandated by state law after no candidate won a majority of the votes during the initial April 18 election. Ossoff won the most votes in the primary while Handel came in a distant second as Republican voters split their total between 11 candidates.

Initially, officials with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee were reluctant to sink money into the special election. Their interest changed, however, when the liberal blog community Daily Kos helped Ossoff's campaign raise $400,000 in a single week. According to campaign filings, Ossoff raised more than $23 million, far more than Handel's $4.5 million.

Trump showed a particular interest in the race, as did House Speaker Paul Ryan. The latter's leadership political action committee spent heavily in the Georgia 6th race to help offset Handel's fundraising disadvantage.

"A special thanks to the president of the United States," Handel said during her victory speech after all the major news organizations had called the race for her shortly after 10 p.m. The assembled crowd of campaign loyalists began chanting, "Trump, Trump, Trump" following the shout-out.

Handel also referenced her party's plans to pass a new health care bill, something it has thus far been unable to do. “We need to finish the drill on health care,” she said.

Despite her onstage acknowledgement of Trump, Handel generally avoided discussing the president on the campaign trail. It was a wise decision since the cultural populism that Trump used to power his own electoral victory appears to be anathema with educated voters, of which the 6th District has many. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, around 60 percent of the district's residents had a bachelor's degree or higher, about twice as high a percentage as the state overall.

In exit poll data from 2016, voters with four-year college degrees said they were 10 points less likely to vote for Trump than for 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Trump got an elliptical mention in Ossoff's concession speech, as the failed Democratic candidate told his supporters that the enthusiasm that powered his campaign was inspirational to others interested in opposing the president.

"As darkness has crept across this planet, [you] have provided a beacon of hope for people here in Georgia, for people across the country, and for people around the world," Ossoff said.

But Ossoff did some distancing of his own as well. Despite being supported by many liberals, he actually portrayed his economic views as centrist rather than progressive. He even sought the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying group that seeks to roll back taxes and regulations. Ossoff also frequently campaigned against "wasteful spending."

Ossoff's defeat will do little to calm the waters in the continuing faction fight between Hillary Clinton moderate types and Bernie Sanders-styled progressives within the Democratic Party. Both sides will no doubt claim that this result boosts their cause, but perhaps the fairest diagnosis is that the evidence remains ambiguous. Ossoff's strategic move away from the left was an evident attempt to counter Handel and her Republican allies, who spent considerable time and money trying to link Ossoff to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader and former speaker.

“Every morning I wake up and I take a moment to be thankful that the Republican Party still has Nancy Pelosi because Nancy Pelosi is absolutely toxic,” Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, told The Washington Times earlier this week.

GOP advertising and messaging also targeted the large out-of-state financial support received by Ossoff. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC essentially controlled by Paul Ryan, created a television ad that connected Ossoff's nationwide fundraising with resentment against cultural liberalism.

In April Pelosi defended herself against Republican attacks, telling NBC, "it’s really important for the voters in those districts to know who the candidates will be voting with.”

Democrats running in historically Republican-dominated areas have long had to deal with opponents linking them to unpopular liberal national figures and culture-war issues. While this is an old trick for the GOP, Handel's victory shows that it can still work in right-leaning locales, even if voters in blue and purple areas tend to focus more on Republicans' unpopular economic views than on concerns about whether Democrats are a bunch of out-of-touch elitists.

If Democrats have any hope of recapturing the House in the 2018 midterms (the Senate is probably out of reach), they will need to compete aggressively in numerous districts that have typically voted for Republicans in recent years. Democrats may find themselves better served by having a new leader in the House. Pelosi has so far avoided any accountability for the party's repeated defeats in congressional elections since losing the lower chamber in the elections of 2010, dominated by the Tea Party's influence.

According to survey data, 37 percent of Americans have no real opinion of Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New Yorker who became minority leader in the Senate this year. Just 26 percent of Americans disapprove of him.

By contrast, Pelosi is much more known and also much more disliked: Forty-nine percent of Americans polled said they disapprove of her, while just 23 percent of those surveyed had no opinion.

Replacing the 76-year-old Pelosi would almost certainly remove an important arrow from the GOP's quiver, just as swapping former Senate minority leader Harry Reid for Schumer did.

Picking someone younger as the next potential Democratic speaker would also likely be politically helpful. Paradoxically enough, while Democratic voters are significantly younger than Republican voters, the GOP unquestionably has younger congressional leadership. At the moment, the average age of members of the Democratic House leadership team is 72 years old. In contrast, the GOP's House leaders have an average age of 49.

By Matthew Sheffield

Matthew Sheffield is a national correspondent for The Young Turks. He is also the host of the podcast "Theory of Change." You can follow him on Twitter.

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