Karen Handel’s win over Jon Ossoff was anything but simple.
The long, expensive, bitter battle over a short-term House seat in the sixth congressional district of Georgia finally ended in a 52–48 victory for Republican Karen Handel over Democrat Jon Ossoff. As I noted as the returns were still coming in, the spin wars over the meaning of this contest will be nearly as intense as the contest itself. Here are some things we legitimately learned from GA-06:
Democrats aren’t the only voters with sufficient enthusiasm to turn out in today’s political climate. The template for a Democratic win in what is after all a congressional district Republicans have easily held since it was created was fairly simple: mobilize aroused Democrats, Democratic-leaning independents, and anti-Trump Republicans to the max and count on GOP divisions and doubts about Trump to produce a crucial turnout advantage. It looked like it might work in the special election’s first round, when several GOP rivals went after front-runner Karen Handel with hammers and tongs and Democratic turnout reached midterm levels. But Ossoff fell just short of a majority. Had Georgia followed its usual practice of a quick runoff election, he would have probably won. But with two months to work with and plenty of national GOP money on hand, Team Handel slowly but surely built an effective turnout machine for the runoff. In the end, Handel nearly erased Ossoff’s big first-round advantage in in-person early voting, and total turnout soared well above midterm levels, reaching 259,000 (as opposed to 210,000 in 2014).
With skill and luck Republicans can walk the tightrope between embracing and repudiating Donald Trump. GA-06 was the only competitive House district on this year’s menu where Trump did relatively poorly in 2016. Indeed, after last night the president retained his record as having the worst performance of any congressional or presidential candidate in GA-06 (in its current, North Atlanta incarnation) ever. So the trick for Karen Handel was to keep her distance from Trump without antagonizing his supporters. For the most part she succeeded. She may have received some inadvertent help in this respect from her opponent, who more or less abandoned his original “make Trump furious” messaging in favor of validating himself as acceptable to swing voters. As the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel points out, Team Ossoff did not run a single ad tying Handel to Trump. So she was able to have it both ways. For all of the president’s crude chest-thumping and self-congratulations after the race was called, he was less of a factor in this election than probably anyone expected.
Negative ads still work. The clear and consistent focus of the GOP message in GA-06 was to remind the district’s dominant Republicans that Jon Ossoff is a Democrat, and to convince them his mild, centrist persona disguised a monstrous radical leftist who is “not one of us.” This conveniently fit in with Karen Handel’s constant emphasis on Ossoff’s non-residency in the district. The barrage of anti-Ossoff ads financed by outside GOP groups was relentless and even to my jaundiced eye unusually shrill and, well, stupid: again and again Ossoff was depicted as a puppet of Nancy Pelosi and her godless San Francisco hippie allies. Once comedian Kathy Griffin became a national pariah via her own stupid (and universally denounced) video of a beheaded Donald Trump, she began to be featured heavily in these ads on the specious grounds that she endorsed Ossoff on Twitter (she had no actual contact with the campaign in any way, shape, or form). Every anti-Ossoff ad I saw also featured anarchists shattering windows and setting fires. The very worst ad, appearing on Fox News just before the election, included images of shooting victim Representative Steve Scalise alongside the suggestion that Ossoff’s “extremist” friends had to be stopped by the voters of GA-06. It was so evil that is was actually condemned by Handel. But while this particular ad was put up by a relatively obscure right-wing PAC, most of the hate-filled cascade of anti-Ossoff ads were sponsored by the official House GOP party committee and by House Speaker Paul Ryan’s PAC. Whether or not they really made a difference, Handel won, which means we are going to see a lot more like them in 2018.
Issues don’t matter much if you don’t address them. One of the most frequent criticisms we will hear of the Ossoff campaign is that it was not really “about” any of the issues that separate candidates, mobilize supporters, and attract swing voters. Had Handel lost, she would have received exactly the same criticism. Yes, the candidates had two debates that were actually pretty wonky. But despite some skirmishing on health care, taxes, and spending — and a rare Handel gaffe when she said she did not “support a livable wage” — the campaigns were more about sending signals than crusading for or against policy proposals. Thanks to the basically conservative nature of the district and the candidates’ own calculations, messaging in this race really boiled down to the Republicans calling Ossoff an out-of-touch lefty’s lefty and Ossoff saying “I’m not!” Ossoff presumably decided specific issues would not help him with swing voters, and that his own base would turn out robustly thanks to the desire to smite Donald Trump and his campaign’s massive get-out-the-vote operation. So now Democrats are left wondering if a campaign that obsessively tried to exploit the unpopular health-care bill Handel said she would have voted for, or embraced popular progressive causes from environmental protection to education to protection of Social Security and Medicare, might have done better. We may never know.
The campaigns in GA-06 may have proven it is possible to contact voters too much. There is abundant anecdotal evidence that the “ground game” in GA-06 was so intense and relentless that by the time June 20 rolled around many voters just wanted it all to end. And in part because the money-and-volunteer-rich Ossoff campaign was engaged in this level of effort from the beginning, the Democrat may have been unequally affected by voter fatigue, as this report from Business Insider suggests:
“I have received non-stop calls, texts emails for two months solid. It’s harassment honestly,” local artist Sydney Daniel told Business Insider. “I liked Ossoff before but now I don’t want to vote at all because of how obnoxious and ruthless they have been.”
Pretty much everyone agrees that the skyrocketing early voting numbers —just over a fourth of voters cast ballots early before the first round, while over half did so in the runoff — was in part driven by people who wanted to get themselves off campaign contact lists and stop the phone calls and knocks on the door. Add in the saturation-level and highly redundant ads, and you have a recipe for taking the fun out of voting. It is not surprising that some of the informal hindsight commentary you heard from Democrats yesterday was that the Ossoff campaign should have devoted less money to hounding the same group of “likely voters” and more to registering and mobilizing marginal voters.
The idea that it is possible to overkill in get-out-the-vote efforts is a highly heretical one that political professionals will resist. And most campaigns aren’t going to have the kind of money that makes it possible. But it’s a phenomenon worth watching.
The results in Georgia, and in other 2017 special elections, should be encouraging to Democrats — but they don’t guarantee a big midterm win. Yes, a lot of Democrats are depressed over what many had expected to be an Ossoff win, and more generally, on the failure of the Donkey Party to convert anti-Trump passion into a special election victory this year (the earlier contest in CA-34 which was dominated by Democratic candidates was never competitive, and two future special elections in heavily Republican Utah and Alabama probably won’t be, either). But as virtually every observer who was not simply spinning has pointed out, the special House elections in Kansas, Montana, Georgia, and South Carolina (the scene of an surprisingly strong if unsuccessful June 20 Democratic candidacy) were all on GOP turf — as one might expect since the vacancies to be filled were created by Trump’s appointment of incumbents to his Cabinet! And without question, all four Democratic candidates in these elections performed well above historic expectations (as House election wizard David Wasserman measured it, these Democrats won on average 8 percentage points more than the character of the districts they were running in would have suggested). Even more fundamentally, these results indicate that the recent pattern of Democrats struggling to turn out their voters in non-presidential elections may have come to an end, just in time for the 2018 midterms.
It is impossible to tell from these or any other special elections what will happen next year — particularly when the main variable in every midterm, the performance and popularity of the president of the United States, is so difficult to predict with any precision. But Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight probably expressed where we are right now as well as anyone could:
The results simultaneously suggest that an impressively wide array of Republican-held seats might be competitive next year — perhaps as many as 60 to 80 — and that Democrats are outright favorites in only a fraction of these, perhaps no more than a dozen.
In order to win a net of 24 seats next year — enough to flip the House — Democrats may therefore need to target dozens of Republican-held seats and see where the chips fall. They can variously attempt anti-Trump, anti-Republican or anti-incumbent messages depending on the district….
[A] “pretty good” year for Democrats might yield a gain of only 15 seats for the party, whereas a “very good” year — if the political climate is just a few points more Democratic-leaning — could produce a 50-seat swing instead.
So while Republicans have earned a moment of celebration for holding off a Democratic assault on their home territory, Democrats should stay focused on the big picture, and the still robust possibility of a 2018 “wave” in their favor.