By John Celock
Tuesday’s special election in Atlanta did show Democrat Jon Ossoff narrowly losing to Republican Karen Handel, but the showing is an impact of Democrats nationally placing a super narrow focus on this one race and not on the changing trends of the nation in the Trump era.
Democrats and progressive groups decided early on to focus almost exclusively on backing Ossoff, a former congressional aide, in the five special elections of the Trump era and not spread the wealth around. Whether this hyper focus was to highlight the changing trends of the suburbs or because Ossoff’s background as a former congressional aide made him acceptable to Washington based groups can be debated, but the result of that hyper focus – and $30 million – is clear, you can move the needle if everyone focuses on one election.
In November, Republican Tom Price, who held the seat until his resignation this year to join Trump’s cabinet, defeated an unknown opponent by 23 points, a norm in a district that has been held by Republicans since 1979. Democrats are now saying that Ossoff’s narrow loss to Handel is because of suburban voters having a backlash against Trump. Fact is, the circumstances of this race cloud any ability to reach that judgment.
Ossoff made the race against Handel, a longtime Georgia political figure, very close in the Republican district because of the millions of dollars that poured into his campaign from progressives around the country, along with the support he received from a wide range of Democratic and progressive groups, many of which engaged in outside spending on his behalf. Daily Kos rallied behind his candidacy early and the list of groups and people from outside Georgia who backed Ossoff grew by the day at times. They made this race the most expensive congressional race in American history.
Ossoff himself used his concession speech to paint his campaign as a national movement of opposition to Trump, again focusing on the national aspect of his campaign and the decision of Democrats to rally around one candidate in one special election. One could almost see Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker, making a film about his candidacy and tailoring the narrative around a national movement against Trump that happened to take place in the Atlanta suburbs.
The other special elections of the Trump era have included a Democrat on Democrat race in Los Angeles that national Democrats did not need to engage in, along with races for Republican seats in Kansas, Montana and South Carolina. Democratic candidates came close in those as well, in some cases due to lower turnout and an engaged Democratic base, but largely without the financial resources of Ossoff and the hyper focus that national groups placed on a race.
The national hyper focus on Ossoff both helped and hurt the Democrat. It helped by obviously giving him the financial resources that made him not just viable for a congressional race in Atlanta but for a statewide race in many states. It helped by giving him national visibility and assistance from a wide range of celebrities and Democratic Party officials, who made the trek to Georgia.
But at the same time it hurt him by casting Ossoff as a national figure looking to lead a movement against Trump not someone looking to represent the Atlanta suburbs. Ossoff spoke largely in the moderate platitudes crafted by Washington operatives who look at the world through one lens. Ossoff had to deal with questions about his residency and when would he decide to move into the district if he won the race. Even Ossoff’s relationship status came into question when he admitted that he had been dating his girlfriend for 12 years. He quickly proposed. At the end Ossoff’s narrative was not written by him but it was written by those in Washington, New York, California and elsewhere who made him a national figure and sought to cast him as the leader of a national movement.
At the same time, Handel could point to a very locally focused record, including service as the chairwoman of the Fulton County Board, as Georgia secretary of state and as head of a local chamber of commerce, all moves that give her a locally focused track record in the minds of suburban voters. Not that Handel was without her own pitfalls, including not winning an election in a decade, including recent losses for governor and U.S. Senate, a move that made this year’s race a last run by a politician seeking a comeback. Handel is also largely loathed by pro-choice activists after her decision to cut a contribution to Planned Parenthood while a senior vice president with the Susan G. Komen Foundation. At the same time, the decision has helped her support among pro-life voters.
Handel received her own outside and national support as Republicans sought to deflect the nationalization of the race by Democrats. Handel also had to fight past an all party primary that featured many Republicans and just one Democrat, Ossoff. In fact the primary was Ossoff’s best chance to win the seat, but he fell short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. His runoff showing was just a little bit better percentage wise than his showing in the first round.
Next year’s midterm elections are a political lifetime away and a lot can change in 24 hours in politics, let alone over a year. But Tuesday’s results in Atlanta do not indicate a specific trend for 2018. Next year, Republicans can win Congress again or Democrats could retake control. But to use the results of Tuesday night to make a decision without highlighting the hyper focus is ill advised.
Yes, Ossoff narrowed the gap, but would he have if he did not have tens of millions of dollars behind him and the hyper focus of every progressive group in the country? Likely not. Come 2018, Democratic support will be spread around the country and not have this hyper focus.