The last month has been filled with media coverage of yesterday’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. One would think this was the most significant race in the history of Congress. Why has this race dominated the media, while another special election in neighboring South Carolina has received almost no attention?
Both the Georgia and South Carolina districts feature resignations by Republicans Congressmen who took positions in the Donald Trump administration. In Georgia, Tom Price resigned to become Secretary of Health and Human Services, while in South Carolina, Mick Mulvaney gave up his seat to become Director of the Office of Management and Budget.
One reason for the attention on the Georgia race may be that the seat was previously held by Newt Gingrich before Price took over, and it has been a Republican district since 1979. That hardly explains the attention on the Georgia district and the neglect of the South Carolina district.
Many viewed the election as a referendum on the Trump administration. Mitt Romney won the district by 23 percent in 2012; Trump won by only 1.5 percent in 2016. Many saw this as an opportunity for Democrats and a sign of Republican dissatisfaction with Trump as party leader.
The Democratic candidate in District 6 was Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old political activist who did not even live in the district. Although the Constitution does not require House candidates to live in the district where they run, not doing so is usually a fatal blow. Handel constantly reminded voters that Ossoff could not vote in the election because he did not reside there.
Ossoff raised over $25 million for his campaign, and his Republican opponent, Karen Handel, raised a similar amount making this the most expensive House race in congressional history. Conspicuously lacking was any discussion, especially by Democrats, of the corrupting influence of money in congressional campaigns.
The media focused great attention on Ossoff, but comparatively little focus on his Republican opponent Handel. We knew that Ossoff worked for a number of Democratic causes and candidates, and considered himself to be a progressive. Ossoff had the backing of the progressive establishment, including John Lewis, an icon in both congressional and civil rights history.
The lack of focus on Handel may be due to the fact Ossoff received 48 percent of the vote in the blanket primary, compared to only 20 percent for Handel. It should be remembered that Republican candidates collectively received 51 percent of the primary vote.
We also know that the Ossoff campaign had 12,000 volunteers, a number seldom reached by statewide candidates. He was clearly a political juggernaut, as his $25 million dollars in campaign funds demonstrated.
During the campaign, one of the candidates posted on their website that the country needs to “cut the wasteful spending. Reduce the deficit so the economy can keep growing.” The site also suggested that the minimum wage be adjusted “at a pace that allows employers to adapt their business plans.”
The above policy pronouncements sound like something from Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan or Handel. They were actually from Ossoff. Hardly progressive sentiments. Did Ossoff’s attempt to moderate his progressive views actually “turn off” progressive voters?
Republican strategy was to tie Ossoff to Nancy Pelosi, a common strategy, but one that many felt was no longer effective. One ad asked voters to “Say ‘No’ to Pelosi’s ‘Yes Man.’” Another ad called Ossoff a “rubber stamp for Pelosi’s failed agenda.”
Ossoff lead by as much as 7 points only a month ago and never trailed Handel until the day before the election when she led by a single point. The polls indicated that Ossoff’s support came from voters from 18 to 64, where he lead by 8 to 15 points; Handel led among voters over 65 by a margin of 62 to 36.
Males supported Handel 52.6 to 45.7 percent while women supported Ossoff by almost exactly the same margin. White voters preferred Handel 55.8 to 43.2 percent while African-Americans favored Ossoff 88.7 to 9.4 percent for Handel.
Why did Handel win and what does it mean? There are several reasons why Handel won and Ossoff lost. Perhaps most damaging was the outsider label, which effectively damaged the Ossoff campaign. Not being able to vote for yourself in such an important campaign put Ossoff in a difficult position. Carpetbaggers in politics have seldom fared well.
Another part of the outsider problem was self-imposed by Ossoff. In an attempt to negate the outsider charge, Ossoff said he lived “a few blocks outside District 6. In fact, it was found that he lived 3.2 miles outside the district.
A final part of the outsider charge related to campaign contributions. Although Ossoff raised over $25 million, most of the contributions came from outside the district. He received fewer than 1,000 donations from District 6 residents, but got over 7,200 contributions from California residents.
It is too early to know for sure, but I am guessing senior voters turned out at very high rates, while younger voters supported Ossoff, but turned out at a far lower rate. We cannot forget that this was a Republican district and the results reflected typical voting patterns.
Democrats are clearly going to be demoralized after expecting to win this seat almost from the beginning. Ossoff did lead almost the entire campaign, but momentum is everything in politics.
A seven-point Ossoff advantage a month out from the election completely vanished by election day.
Neither party should read too much into the election results. A Handel victory is no more an endorsement of Trump than an Ossoff victory would have meant that Trump and the Republicans were doomed.