Georgia special election: Republican Karen Handel beats Jon Ossoff in runoff
This article titled “Georgia special election: Republican Karen Handel beats Jon Ossoff in runoff” was written by Ben Jacobs in Sandy Springs, Georgia, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 21st June 2017 02.17 UTC
Democrats fell short of a special election victory yet again on Tuesday when Jon Ossoff, long the best hope of Democrats to win a special election in the Trump administration, suffered a narrow loss to Republican Karen Handel in the sixth congressional district.
The race was the latest in a series of special elections in Republican seats where Democrats managed to deliver moral victories – rather than actual victories – as they proved unable to notch a major electoral win in the Trump administration.
With 100% of precincts reporting, Handel had 52.7% and Ossoff had 47.3%.
Sporadic downpours and flash flood warnings helped to put a damper on Democratic turnout in base precincts and on the hopes of progressives to thwart Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Combined with an energized Republican base that kept Ossoff from accumulating a significant lead among early voters, it doomed the hopes of the anti-Trump activists who made the first-time Democratic candidate a minor political celebrity.
The runoff came after a first round of voting in April where Ossoff won just over 48% of the vote and Handel finished second in a splintered Republican field with just under 20% of the vote. However, Ossoff struggled to match that total as Handel consolidated the Republican vote in a traditionally conservative district in the northern suburbs of Atlanta and ended up falling a percentage point short of his much hyped performance in the first round of voting.
Trump hailed the result as a personal victory on Twitter: “Thank you @FoxNews “Huge win for President Trump and GOP in Georgia Congressional Special Election.”
The seat had been vacated by Tom Price when the former congressman joined Trump’s cabinet to become secretary of health and human services – a job previously held by Republican stalwarts like Senator Johnny Isakson and former speaker Newt Gingrich. Although Price won by 23% in 2016, Donald Trump only narrowly won this wealthy, well-educated district by just over 1%.
Trump’s narrow win sparked optimism among Democrats that the district, where nearly 60% of residents have a college degree, could flip as part of the political realignment around the president’s upset victory in 2016. Roughly m ended up being spent by both parties and allied groups in the race as it became the most expensive congressional campaign in the history of the United States.
However, while Democrats had motivated their base and won over skeptical Republicans, the conservative slant of the district proved too much for the nearly unprecedented resources that Democrats invested in the race, even flying in volunteers for last minute door-knocking as local television stations had been saturated by 30-second advertisements.
The two candidates took different tones in their election night speeches after the race was called. Ossoff, speaking to a distraught crowd in a packed ballroom, cast the race in historical terms. “As darkness has crept across this planet you have provided a beacon of hope to people in Georgia and people in around the world,” Ossoff told attendees. He cast the race in broader metaphysical terms. “The fight goes on, hope is still alive,” said Ossoff.
In contrast, Handel gave a far more traditional speech. She mentioned the obligation that came with “being the first Republican woman elected to Congress from the great state of Georgia” and cast herself as an inspirational story, telling attendees: “Anything is possible with hard work, inspiration, grit and people that believe in you.” Handel also touched on policy priorities like “finishing the drill on healthcare” and lowering taxes including a repeal of the estate tax.
Although the race had been cast as a referendum on Trump – an opinion the president seemed to endorse after the result had been reported – both candidates awkwardly danced around his looming presence on the campaign trail. At Handel’s campaign events, Trump’s name went unmentioned by the candidate and introductory speakers. Instead, there was a constant refrain of attack on Ossoff for his ties to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and praise for previous holders of the seat such as Price and Newt Gingrich. Ossoff was regularly bashed for the amount of money he raised out of state, for having “San Francisco values” and, particularly, for the fact that he did not actually live in the district.
Handel, who suggested in the first televised debate of the campaign that Trump should use Twitter less often, told the Guardian in an interview on Monday that she didn’t pay attention to the president’s use of social media. She said: “I am focused on my campaign, I have precious little time to be on Twitter.” Several hours later, her campaign sent out a fundraising email signed by the former secretary of state with the subject line “did you see what Trump just tweeted?” after the president used his ubiquitous social media account to tout her campaign.
Ossoff has also been measured in his attacks on Trump in a traditionally Republican district, albeit one that the president barely won in 2016. Instead, the lanky and measured political neophyte focused on banal and politically non-controversial issues such as government waste and turning Atlanta into “the Silicon Valley of the south”, and let the progressive anti-Trump enthusiasm of the Democratic base carry him.
Ossoff focused on Handel’s stint as Georgia secretary of state as well as her brief position with the Susan Komen Race for the Cure, a charity which combats breast cancer, where she led an effort to cut off the organization’s funding for Planned Parenthood. The decision sparked a major controversy – funding was eventually restored and Handel had to resign from the organization.
In an interview with the Guardian, Ossoff slammed his opponent: “Secretary Handel’s record as secretary of state is extremely weak … perhaps because she was too busy preparing her next run for higher office to do her job. She quit her job early to run for higher office, as so many career politicians do. Her last significant private sector experience, her performance also lacked.”
The issue of civility and the growing toxic nature of American political culture became an issue late in the race, in the aftermath of the shooting of House minority whip Steve Scalise. Handel pointed to social media and journalism as reasons for the decline of civility in American society in an interview with the Guardian. “Journalism is not journalism any more,” said Handel. Ossoff stuck to broader themes, telling the Guardian: “This is a deep-rooted problem in American politics right now, which is going to take work and bipartisan commitment to trying to heal wounds, and focus on substance instead of fear mongering and slander.”
Nationally, Democrats tried to spin the results. In a statement, Ben Ray Lujan, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said: “There are more than 70 districts more favorable to Democrats than this deep red district, and Ossoff’s close margin demonstrates the potential for us to compete deep into the battlefield.”
However, Republicans took a victory lap as Steve Stivers, the chair of the National Republican Campaign Committee, said in a statement: “Nancy Pelosi threw the kitchen sink at her, yet Karen still came out on top and ready to fight for Georgia in Congress. For all the Democrats’ bluster and despite pouring over m into this race, I couldn’t be more proud to help keep this seat in Republican hands.”
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