It’s a little harder today than it was yesterday morning to challenge the argument that the suburban, heavilly-gerrymandered south is still ‘fool’s gold’ for Democratic House candidates. Handel’s victory provides red meat for Democratic strategists who argue that, generally, Dems shouldn’t squander resources running in southern, predominantly white House districts.
Ossoff’s loss by less than 10,000 votes cast out of more than 259,000 cast (51.87 to 48.13 percent) may dampen the enthusiasm of the “run everywhere” advocates in the Democratic Party, at least as far as House districts are concerned. But Obama’s 2008 victories in NC, FL and VA and 2012 wins in VA and FL still indicate that good Democratic presidential candidates can still do well in southern states. It’s the House races in southern, predominantly white districts that look a bit less accessible today.
Handel ran a competent campaign. She didn’t whine too much about attacks against her; She kept on attacking Ossoff relentlessly and apparently made her memes about her opponent stick. As Ed Kilgore notes in New York, “Handel’s strategy – keeping a prudent distance from Donald Trump and reminding GOP voters in endlessly rerun ads that the mild-mannered centrist candidate was linked to “extremist liberals” ranging from anarchist street protesters to Hollywood to Nancy Pelosi – was effective.”
John Cassidy writes in his New Yorker article, “Jon Ossoff’s Georgia Sixth Loss Is a Reality Check for Democrats,” that “The G.O.P. high command depicted Ossoff as a puppet of Hollywood celebrities and Nancy Pelosi, who, according to the Journal Constitution poll, has a ninety-one per cent disapproval rating among local Republicans…the Republican barrage proved effective, something Handel acknowledged in her victory speech.”
As for the argument that Ossoff “would have done better if he had adopted a more populist and overtly anti-Trump approach,” Cassidy writes, “In a district as red as Georgia’s Sixth, the disheartening truth is that Ossoff probably wouldn’t have done better had he run to the left.” But I do have to wonder of Ossoff could have hit Handel harder with the video clip showing her opposition to a “living wage.” I’m left with a feeling that he could have attacked her more effectively, at least on that gaffe.
Handel also handled White House participation delicately, using Vice President Pence for fund-raising, but not for rallies and avoiding talk about Trump. “During her two debates with Ossoff, ” writes Frank Bruni in The New York Times, “she sidestepped any utterance of Trump’s name to a point where Jim Galloway, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, cracked that “the clothes have no emperor.” As Robert Costa, Paul Kane and Elsie Viebeck and put it in The Washington Post, Handel also did a good job of “deflecting the barrage of questions about Trump’s latest tweets or his handling of investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.”
A former Georgia Secretary of State who knew the district from the inside out, Handel also had all the benefits of her party’s domination of state politics, along with buckets of GOP money, and she leveraged these assetts well. Ossoff should also be credited with running a good campaign. He almost won it without a run-off, and he did recruit an estimated 12,000 volunteers.
In his PowerPost analysis, “Ossoff chose civility and it didn’t work. How do Democrats beat Trump?,” Paul Kane discusses the possibility that Ossoff should have campaigned a little more like a warrior and a little less like a gentelman: “In Ossoff, Democrats hoped they had found a potential new path to defeating Republicans with a message of peace and civility. They calculated that the fiery rage, often associated with supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would not win over moderate Republicans and centrists…So Ossoff chose the high priest route instead of the fierce warrior. It was civil disobedience rather than civil unrest.”
Kane notes that an Ossoff volunteer, Jeff Jacobsen, “acknowledged that there were times he wanted Ossoff to be more of a fighter. “Sometimes my wife and I are a little frustrated, but if that’s who he is, that’s who he is. He’s not getting down and dirty…” There is both a hunger for more candidate civility on the part of many voters, coexisting alongside a longing for more aggressive candidates who deploy tougher rhetoric. Tone is important in the context of different electorates and opponents. In any case, Ossoff’s toughness was more in his energetic determination than in his rhetoric. I suspect such tone choices are a usually a washout, unless taken to extremes.
Kilgore affirms that “Ossoff’s strategy was to win in the first round before local and national Republicans got their act together.” In this, he very nearly succeeded. Or, according to one insider, Dee Hunter, director of the Civil Rights Center of Washington, D.C., only voter suppression prevented him from winning in the first round. It is possible, though not likely, that another Democrat in another transitional district might have better luck with a such a first-round blitz. But it appears that Republicans have developed solid enough ground games for run-off elections.
What did Ossoff win? He forced the GOP into record-level spending in a solid red district. More importantly, as Kilgore writes, “Democrats searching for a silver lining in the Georgia race don’t have to look too far. This is the third consecutive special election (the fourth if you count South Carolina) in a historically Republican district where the Democratic percentage of the vote jumped sharply. Democrats will surely retake the House if the swing in their direction is similarly strong in 2018.”
Looking toward the future, the lessons of the GA-6 election may soon be buried in the rubble of coming political earthquakes. As Cassidy concludes, “If the White House and the Republicans go ahead and pass unpopular measures, such as tax cuts for the rich and a health-care bill that raises premiums and causes tens of millions of people to lose their insurance coverage, they could well suffer the consequences in 2018.”
So often the seeds of future victories are hidden in electoral defeats. Just as Handel has learned the useful lessons of her past political defeats, Georgia Democrats can hope that Ossoff will be back in politics again. Having learned the lessons of his defeat in the special election run-off, he now has greater name-recognition and fund-raising smarts — both of which could serve him well in the next election.