Lessons From The Georgia Sixth

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On Tuesday June 20th, Democrats all across the country suffered a monumental bout of disappointment as Republican candidate Karen Handel won the sixth congressional district in Georgia. The left had put their hopes and dreams in the Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff—a young, centrist former political aid and documentary film maker. After a series of disappointing loses in special elections from Kansas to Montana, the Democratic party finally felt that they could find a win in Ossoff that would raise the spirits their base and reinvigorate the party heading into the 2018 midterm campaign season. Alas, this was not to be. 

Despite the Democrats making one of the largest financial investments in the party’s history—with $50 million being spend on the race overall—Handel won by a comfortable margin of 51.9% to Ossoff’s 48.1%. There are several lessons that can be drawn from this loss, probably more so than the preceding special elections losses which were less watched and less financially supported.

It’s Surprising How Surprised Everyone Was

In almost every special election since November, Democrats started with a steep hill to climb. While the partisan gap in all of these races was closed slightly during the presidential race, this can widely be seen as an anomaly considering the candidates. Republican control in these districts was secure. 

The sixth congressional district in Georgia is a white, upper class, suburban district on the outskirts of Atlanta. Demographically it’s a lock down Republican district, and the numbers back this up. Tom Price, the district’s former congressman who is now Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, won the district in his 2016 reelection by 23 points, sweeping every county won by Hillary Clinton.  Four years ago, Republicans found similar success with their presidential candidate when Mitt Romney won the district by about the same margin.  And of course Donald Trump won the district in 2016 by a very slim margin, but a victory is still a victory. 

Having these statistics on hand, and understanding the demographics and voting patterns of this area, it’s inherently surprising how much faith Democrats put into this race. Even if you had the perfect candidate, climbing up a +23 point mountain is the equivalent to scaling a political Mount Everest. It seems that Democrats ill-advisedly tried to correlate a local congressional race to a presidential race in which Hillary Clinton nearly won, and it’s easy to see why this would be attractive. Donald Trump is at an all time low in first year Presidential approval ratings, and has been there since the beginning of his term; but Karen Handel is not Donald Trump, and moderate Republicans are still Republicans.

Trump’s Unpopularity Might Not Translate to Local Races

Karen Handel had a pretty impressive political resume, especially for local politics.  She has served as the president and CEO of North Fulton County Chamber of Commerce, deputy chief of staff for Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, chairwoman for the Fulton County Commission (the county’s governing body), Georgia's Secretary of State, and Vice President for Public Policy in the Susan G. Komen Foundation. She also fielded an unsuccessful campaign for the US Senate. 

Compare Handel to President Donald Trump: a man who has never served in or run for public office before, ran an, inflammatory and ignorant campaign, and who has continued to inflame moderates the nation over. The resume, experience, and temperament of these two people couldn’t be more different. 

While moderate republicans may not favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, this stands as an anomaly. It is completely rational for these same moderate Republicans to prefer a well qualified, experienced, and moderate local Republican figure who has worked within their community for years, over a Hillary Clinton-like candidate embodied in Jon Ossoff. The tremendous difference between the presidential race and the congressional races in the district are completely understandable when viewed through this prism. And this same dynamic will probably be repeated throughout the entire country in 2018. It’s irrational for the DNC to draw conclusions in local districts based on Trump’s national performance. It’s equally irrational for them to try to tie any one of these candidates to his Presidency; because, just as with Handel, those candidates will not be Donald Trump.

Local Identity Matters

Some of the most damning attacks leveled at Jon Ossoff seem to be those which tied him to Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi—a clearly national figure and one who’s intense hatred by the right is too involved to parse here. Karen Handel told reporters on the eve of the election, “this strategy for this campaign has always been about who is the best right fit for the people of this district and the people of this district are not from a views and values standpoint aligned with Nancy Pelosi.”  This explicit explanation of the Handel campaign strategy begs the question: why was this so effective?

It seems this strategy was effective because Ossoff was presented as a national candidate and had no way to counter it. His own circumstances didn’t help him either. For example, he was unable to vote for himself in his own election—a fact that even President Trump used against him in an endorsement of Handel.  Ossoff was also not helped by the fact that so many national Democrats invested in his race—not that national attention is always a bad thing, but at what point does the attention of the national DNC become a liability instead of an asset? This race became the most expensive House race in national history and the most invested race by the DNC. Everyone from Tom Perez to Bernie Sanders to Jane Fonda endorsed Ossoff, which coupled with his outsider status in the district, did far more to bolster his opposition’s motivation than it did to bolster his supporters. This may be an additional lesson for the DNC as well. It may be more useful in future elections for them to keep their heads down and not draw as much national attention as they did in Georgia. That national attention hampers the ability of their candidate to run on local issues, despite their best intentions. 

It was easy to frame Ossoff as a political carpetbagger coming into the district with the support of the national liberal establishment to steal away the Republican seat from their loyal voters—never mind the fact that Karen Handel was bolstered by just as much money and attention from the national GOP and Republican Super-PACs. However, this was easily countered by her hyper local resume, an asset that Ossoff did not have. It’s far more plausible to believe that Georgians could trust Handel to go to Congress and fight for their local issues instead of her party’s broader platform because she has been working with those same local issues for her entire career. 

An interesting analogy to this race that shows the power of local political involvement was the recent gubernatorial primaries in Virginia. The Democratic race pitted Virginia’s current Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam against former Congressman Tom Perriello. These two candidates were extremely similar in their platform and message; however, their major differences came from their resume and endorsements. 

Northam had worked his entire political career in Virginia. He served in the State Senate from 2007 until 2013, and has served as Lt. Governor since that time. During that time he has built an immense amount of relationships in local Virginia politics and has gained the trust of Virginia voters in a much more personal way. For his efforts Northam was endorsed by a heavy majority of the Democrats in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate, every Democratic congressman in the state, both sitting senators, and Virginia’s governor. 

Perriello on the other hand had about the poler opposite resume. He grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia but spent most of his political career in the foreign service. He was narrowly elected to the 5th Congressional seat in Virginia in 2010, but lost it in the 2012 midterms—after which he went to work for John Kerry at the State Department. When he decided to run for Governor, Perriello returned to Virginia and couched himself as a more progressive alternative to Northam, and in doing so, gained the endorsements of many of the most prominent national Democratic figures including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and several former top aides to Barrack Obama. 

And thus with these parameters the race was framed by everyone outside of Virginia as a retread of the 2016 democratic primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. A referendum on progressivism verses centrism. A neoliberal verses a populist. Except it wasn’t any of those things—especially not to Virginians, who saw these candidates as both extremely qualified and pretty similar. 

When the election finally came to an end, Northam had won by 10 point margin. This illustrates how effective local connections are in these smaller elections. In the end, Virginia’s Democratic voters felt that they could trust Northam to run the state with Virginia’s issues in mind instead of the national party’s because he had spent his entire political career working on those issues. He had made meaningful connections to Virginia voters by working in Virginia, and alongside everyone who cared about the state. This is the exact same dynamic which helped Karen Handel win in Georgia. When your job is to go to Washington and actively fight for the local issues in your area, having worked in that area is perhaps the most important asset you can possibly have.  

Democrats Must Run on Actual Issues

If you watch a collection of Jon Ossoff’s television ads, one of his campaign’s biggest problems becomes glaringly obvious. Take his “Accountable" ad, for instance,  where in he explains, “I’ll work with anyone to do whats right for our country, and Georgia.” Well thats a solid platform if there ever was one. The ad goes on to explain that Jon wants to attract more jobs to the area, cut wasteful spending, and hold President Trump accountable when he “embarrasses our country.” It may be glaring obviously, but none of this means anything. You could not find a more milk-toast, generic platform to run on—and by most accounts, this is exactly what Ossoff’s campaign was going for. Matthew Yglesias writes in Vox, “Ossoff’s team was aware, of course, that the district is not accustomed to voting for Democrats…they attempted to counter this move by positioning Ossoff as blandly as possible — just a kind of nice guy who doesn’t like Donald Trump — and dissociating him from any hard-edged ideas or themes.”

This generic nature and unwillingness to actually run on or explain any tough policies was a problem for Ossoff, both in mobilizing his base voters and in persuading moderate Republicans to come to his side. It also illustrates a much bigger problem that Democratic candidates are having in the age of Trump. 

During the presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was awash with extremely well informed and meticulously laid out policy proposals. You could find white paper after white paper of Clinton’s stance on every issue under the sun. However, when push came to shove, her main campaign message was still some version of “Love Trumps Hate” instead of “Here are all of the policies that this man will enact, and here’s how it will hurt you.” This dynamic has enveloped the whole of the Democratic party is a very damaging way. Opposition to the temperament Donald Trump alone is not a campaign message, and it certainly isn’t a prescription for how a Representative is going to help their district. 

The Republican agenda working it’s way through the Congress right now is one of the most unpopular in the nations history. Approval for the Senate healthcare bill is polling anywhere from 12% to 17% and this agenda has elicited a response from the Democratic base almost unseen before in American politics. And yet, Democrats will go on the campaign trail and refuse to spell out the true details of this policy or present their own detailed policy for how to fix the problems in people’s lives.

Democrats need to begin to explain to people the “why” portion of their agenda. Why should we vote for you, besides our dislike of Donald Trump? What are you actually, substantively, going to do? Why should our dislike of Donald Trump drive us to the polls? Are you going to take actual steps to curb his power in the wake of an unprecedented violation of norms? Why does the Russia investigation that you talk so much about really matter? Why do you suddenly believe national security is so important? Why is this healthcare bill so egregious? The list can go on and on. 

The answers to all of these questions are perfectly knowable if you do a fair amount of reading into people’s positions or have some moderate knowledge of the United States relationship structure around the world, but most people don’t have that knowledge and are not interested in gaining it. What Democrats need to do is find a way to make that information presentable and then persuade people with it. But that is not whats happening now. There is less an attempt at persuasion, and more an assumption that they are already right and people should have known that. 

A Silver Lining

Despite the loss of the Georgia Sixth being a massive blow to the Democrats who were so heavily invested in it, there is a sliver of good news on the horizon. While Ossoff lost in a district that was heavily Republican before and was only slightly less Republican after, there are currently 23 Republican held districts in the country that Hillary Clinton actually won in 2016.  

Most of them are similar to the sixth, in that they are heavily suburban and moderate in their conservatism; but unlike the sixth, they had enough swing voters to have a Democrat win. Despite this presidential election being an anomaly, it’s quite possible that if the Democratic party takes to heart all of the lesson’s from Ossoff’s loss, they may be able to pull out a string of impressive victories in 2018. It will take a lot of work and some reevaluation with in the party leadership, but it is doable—and it would go a long way to helping the left recover from the trauma of constant losses. 


Zachary Sizemore is the Managing Editor at Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.