Getting a Handel on the Georgia Special Election

Karen Handel with supporters campaigning for Georgia's 6th congressional district at the DeKalb–Peachtree Airport annual airshow on 2017 June 10.

By Cameron Erickson

The special election for Georgia’s sixth congressional seat, vacated by now-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, was eyed closely by Democrats and Republicans alike. Despite Democrats spending a record excess of $30 million on the race, Democrat Jon Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel. The results came as a shock to many, and curious minds from both sides of the political spectrum have been speculating as to the cause(s) of the arguably surprising result.

This loss is the fourth special election out of four for the Democrats since Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016. While some are praising the gains made by Democrats in a historically Republican district, others are decrying the fact that, despite their best efforts (and a lot of money), Democrats just cannot seem to win.

Of the fifteen congressional districts with the highest percentage of people with a college degree, Georgia’s sixth is the only one with a Republican member of Congress. It is the type of district Democrats think they ought to eventually be in a position to win, and try they did.

Many Hollywood elites came out and endorsed Ossoff, and gave big to his campaign as well. The left-wing, “Pro-Israel. Pro-Peace.” advocacy group J Street even endorsed Ossoff and put money into the race, hoping to turn the tide. Ossoff accepted these endorsements, and many, including celebrities, actually went out and campaigned for the 30-year-old congressional staffer who did not happen to reside in the 6th congressional district.

Handel won by nearly 11,000 votes and by more than four percentage points.  Ossoff was unable to surpass the 48 percent mark he obtained in the initial vote on April 18th.

And so many Democrats are rightfully wondering: when will we start winning again?

Both Handel and Ossoff had no experience running a business, either as an entrepreneur or a professional. The only important jobs either of them had was working for elected politicians, being an elected politician, or drawing paychecks from nonprofit organizations.

Ossoff’s loss in Georgia is explainable for a few reasons. For one, it speaks to the need of recruiting the best candidates the Democrats possibly can. It also speaks to a need of cultivating a message that says more than “Trump is bad.”

Tim Ryan, the Democratic congressman from Ohio who unsuccessfully challenged Nancy Pelosi for her leadership seat shortly after the 2016 election, recently spoke to this point, saying, “The brand is just bad…I don’t think people are realizing just how toxic the Democratic Party brand is in so many parts of the country.” He is also leading a renewed effort, along with Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA06), to pressure Pelosi to resign. Congressman Vela (D-TX34) added onto the pile-on saying, “In the context of winning the 2018 election and taking the majority, I think it’s pretty clear that Pelosi does not help our candidates in those swing districts that are so necessary for us to win.”

Admittedly, it is amazing that Republicans are running against Pelosi considering it has been nearly eight years since she has held power.  Despite this, and like it or not, Pelosi is a millionaire, San Francisco progressive, and represents an easy target given widespread resentment of coastal elitism.

Nancy Pelosi represents a kind of ‘boogeyman’ to a lot of Americans, and it probably would not be ill-advised for her to step aside.

But Democrats cannot lose sight of what is most important: the urgent need for an economic message. As Maureen Dowd recently stated in The New York Times, “It’s shocking that Hillary couldn’t be bothered to come up with an economic message or any rationale other than ‘It’s My Turn.’” The Democrats need someone who can connect with the American people. If the Democrats had run Joe Biden in 2016, according to GOP Senator Ben Sasse, he would have easily won. Anecdotally, I can recall speaking to someone who voted for Trump but remarked that Joe Biden was his favorite politician. What he liked about Trump was his supposed authenticity – “He says it how it is,” the man said. Perhaps Biden can channel something similar.

Hillary, on the other hand, was very careful and very lawyerly. She was also under FBI investigation. Some would prefer somebody who is wrong, over someone who is shrouded (or appears to be).

Likewise, Ossoff was up in the polls, and many Democrats were hoping that he would win, though this polling would prove as unhelpful as November’s. The results of Georgia’s special election are stress-inducing for Democrats because they keep coming close but cannot seem to seal the deal.

Handel was seen by many as a weak candidate — a bad debater, she appeared to show tremendous anxiety and lacked a grasp of historical, economic and constitutional issues. Her “I do not support a livable wage” gaffe during one of the debates was one for the ages, probably on par with Romney’s 47 percent quip.

Ossoff was also a weak candidate in many respects, eschewing the premise that “all politics is local.” The Republican-leaning district is home to 58,000 Jews, yet he refused the easy opportunity during one of the debates to distance himself from former President Obama on the Iran deal. He was also pro-choice, supported gay marriage, and opposed withdrawing from the Paris climate accord.

The real question is: Does policy matter?

Will the Republicans be better or worse off after passing their health care bill? If they pass it, their base will surely be very excited. If they do not pass it, their base will surely be very disappointed. 23 million Americans may lose coverage should the former become a reality.

Unless Democrats can come up with a real policy platform, moving away from that of surface-level identity politics, it remains debatable as to whether or not they have the ability to make gains or come close to taking back the House in 2018. As Congressman Ryan concluded, “I worry sometimes that we get so obsessed and angered by Donald Trump, which is OK, but you cannot hold onto it because it takes your eye off the ball.”

Ossoff would have had more success by modeling his run for Congress after another Jewish Democrat who, in 2016, successfully ran for a Republican seat in New Jersey. Congressman Josh Gottheimer, who became the first Democrat to win New Jersey’s 5th Congressional seat since 1933, won the district along with Donald Trump. Gottheimer ran on a platform of “Low Taxes, Jersey Values,” was strong on National Security and Israel, and mainly touted a fiscally conservative, socially moderate platform. He was also firm on issues such as college affordability and infrastructure. He was able to run as someone who wouldn’t just be a rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi and her agenda and was victorious. In the age of Donald Trump, Democrats may be well advised to follow a similar approach to Gottheimer if they hope to succeed.