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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Two Weeks Later, Reasons for Ossoff Defeat Come Into Focus

Two weeks after the GA-6 special election run-off, seasoned political columnist Albert R. Hunt of Bloomberg View offers some perceptive observations about Jon Ossoff’s defeat in that marquee contest:

Some disappointed Democrats have argued that they failed because their candidate wasn’t tough enough on Trump, and didn’t take strongly progressive positions that would energize their most loyal voters.

That theory doesn’t hold up to an analysis of voter-turnout data by John Anzalone, the pollster for the Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff.

Anzalone’s breakdown shows that Democrats turned out to vote in impressive numbers. There were 125,000 votes for Ossoff, more than Democratic congressional candidates had gotten in the district before and more than Barack Obama received in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012.

“We did excite the Democratic base,” Anzalone said. “Trump was the accelerant that brought out Democrats who would not normally vote in a midterm or special election.”

The problem for the Democrats was that there was a larger-than-expected Republican turnout too, enabling the GOP candidate, Karen Handel, to win by 10,000 votes. Some Democrats had hoped that Trump’s unpopularity would dampen turnout for the Republican House candidate; it didn’t happen.

Hunt also sees a foreign policy impact benefitting Handel, as “supporters of Handel hammered Ossoff in the closing weeks of the campaign for inflating his national-security resume and for working with the Qatari-based media network Al Jazeicalera,” and notes that “Trump’s favorable poll ratings in the district rose only once, when he ordered the bombing of Syria in April.” But that’s an argument that would be more applicable to a U.S. Senate race than a House contest. It would be hard to cite a GA House race that clearly turned on foreign policy concerns in the last decade.

Hunt notes the Handel campaign’s extensive Pelosi-bashing as a possible factor. Ads can amplify an albatross strategy to a modest extent. But most Pelosi-haters would likely have voted against Ossoff anyway, regardless of any such attack ads. Value added by such ideological linkage would likely be minimal.

Ossoff’s defeat notwithstanding, Hunt points out that, “in every special House race and statewide contest this year, they [Democratic candidates] have significantly outperformed their showing in recent elections even in defeat.” Picking up two dozen House seats  doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, especially given the President’s tanking approval ratings and the lengthening do-nothing track record of GOP House members.

Other possible reasons for Handel’s win might include suppression of African American and Latino voters, Ossoff’s inadequate  outreach to working-class voters and Handel’s better-than-expected and lavishly-funded ground game. But Hunt is surely right that Democratic candidates have done a lot better thsn before in GA-6 and other 2017 special elections in Repubican-held districts. Looking toward the 2018 midterm elections, Dems have every reason for cautious optimism — and energetic voter mobilization in competitive House districts.

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