The Fight to #FlipTheSixth
A breakdown of the Democratic quest to prove the potential for electoral success in resistance
The Progressive Teen Staff Writer
WITHIN TEN MINUTES OF ARRIVING IN THE GEORGIA SIXTH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT, I had witnessed my first political ad. It was a short television spot in favor of Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate in the upcoming special election in the district. It broadcasted in unison on all of the televisions in my hotel lobby. Within it, Ossoff appeared all around Metro Atlanta, using some of its well-known landmarks to highlight the economic activity of the area and state how he would invest in it all as a Congressman.
The election nerd within me found the ad’s use of drone footage and basic special effects to be extremely cool when I had viewed the ad online days earlier. However, viewing it on television in the district made it stick with me even more, casually reminding me that I was currently in the midst of one of the most exciting — and expensive — congressional races in United States history.
As a Democrat and election junkie, I had been observing the Sixth District special election since its inception in late January, largely out of interest in the district itself. The Georgia Sixth Congressional District — which sits north of Atlanta and encompasses parts of Dekalb, Fulton, and Cobb counties — is both incredibly wealthy and well-educated. While this combination of traits often results in leaning blue politically, the Georgia Sixth District has stood as an outlier for years, consistently voting for Republican candidates by huge margins. The district, which was home to Republican firebrand Newt Gingrich for 20 years, is the only one in the top 10 most educated congressional districts in the country to be represented by a Republican.
This long-lasting party loyalty of the Georgia Sixth District was not simply out of chance, however. Like much of congressional map throughout the state of Georgia, the district is heavily gerrymandered specifically to ensure that it heavily leans Republican. However, like in many other educated Republican districts around the country, the recent rightward shift of the party has strained that historical partisanship.
Although the district voted for their incumbent Republican representive, Tom Price, by nearly 20 points in November, the district swung toward Hillary Clinton in the same election, with Donald Trump only managing to win the district by only a little over a point. For reference, in the previous two presidential elections, the district went to the Republican candidate by greater than 20 points. This political shift, combined with a surging movement in demographics towards millennials and students, is leading to political uncertainty not seen in the district in decades.
With Tom Price having left his congressional seat in the district to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services for the Trump administration, and the signs of a rebelling moderate electorate, the district’s upcoming special election to fill Price’s seat has gained national attention. Democrats, searching for a special election win, view it as an indicator for a potential wave election in 2018 fueled by Donald Trump’s rising unpopularity. Republicans, fearing potential retribution for their near unanimous support of an unpopular administration and unpopular policy, view it as an election of great concern politically in a district that was once incredibly safe for the party. As a result, this election has become a national political affair on a level not seen in any House election, special or otherwise, in recent memory.
“As a young and fresh newcomer to politics with little political baggage, Jon Ossoff is very much a manifestation of what the Democratic party currently needs.”
In a time where Democrats around the country, still reeling from the election and inauguration of Donald Trump, were still searching for an answer on what to do next, Jon Ossoff stood out to me and many others as a viable option for a Democratic future when he announced his candidacy in the race to replace Tom Price. He is quite educated, having received degrees from both Georgetown University and London School of Economics in foreign policy and economics. He has an extensive amount of experience, having achieved top-secret security clearence for five months while working as a staffer for congressman Hank Johnson. Most of all, however, he is incredibly young. At the age of 30, Ossoff very much falls under the term millenial, and in a time where the consensus is increasingly prominent amongst Democratic strategists that young people are our future, that plays to his advantage. As a young and fresh newcomer to politics with little political baggage, Jon Ossoff is very much a manifestation of what the Democratic party currently needs.
From the outset of the race, Jon Ossoff had momentum on his side. Touting an endorsement from local politician and civil rights activist John Lewis and a promise to “make Trump furious,” he received the most early attention in all of the race in a crowded field of 18 candidates. Ossoff weaponized this, quickly organizing a skilled campaign consisting of motivated citizens, dedicated activists, and grassroots donors — all uniting with the goal of flipping the Georgia Sixth District. With the support of liberal blogs and fundraising organizations, such as Daily Kos, Move On, and Swing Left, he was able to raise $8.3 million ahead of the first round of the special election. In just two months, he and his brigade of local volunteers were able to knock on over 250,000 doors in the district.
“To his advantage, Ossoff’s campaign had already matured into a well-oiled machine in the days where the campaigns of his 17 opponents were still in their infancy.”
To his advantage, Ossoff’s campaign had already matured into a well-oiled machine in the days where the campaigns of his 17 opponents were still in their infancy. Republicans in the district were still fighting over the direction the party should go, torn between Donald Trump’s striking unpopularity and their need to stay loyal to the party. This resulted in 11 Republican candidates vying for party support in the first round, ranging from full-blown Trump fanatics to stark #NeverTrump-ers.
This consumed the Republican party throughout the first round and kept resistance to him at bay, with the only political ad against Ossoff out before round 1 of voting being an odd hitpeice targeting a Star Wars-inspired short film he had made in college. He also faced little internal challenge, with the four other non-Republican candidates, including four Democrats and two independents, being largely overlooked in his light.
A combination of these factors led to the events of April 18th, where in the first round of the special election, Ossoff outperformed all of the polls and received 48% of the vote, falling just short of the 50% margin needed to avoid a runoff. The runner-up — former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel — advanced to the second round of the special election with Ossoff, having received only 20% of the vote.
While not the pro-Ossoff blowout many were hoping for, it was nothing less than striking. Jon Ossoff, a young and liberal political newcomer, had managed to succeed in what was once considered to be a solidly red district. He outperformed Hillary Clinton in the November presidential election by a full point. If nothing else, the first round of voting had confirmed the hopes of Democrats and the worst fears of Republicans: the Georgia Sixth District is now very much in play.
“As a party that has thrown their near complete support behind President Trump, they were now dealing with an incredibly anti-Trump constituency in the district and a candidate who is, quite frankly, boring.”
National Republicans, having descended into an all-out panic at the results of round 1, are now left with a mess as the runoff approaches. As a party that has thrown their near complete support behind President Trump, they are now dealing with an incredibly anti-Trump constituency in the district and a candidate who is, quite frankly, boring. Karen Handel, Ossoff’s opponent in the June 20 runoff, has a history a failure when it comes to her political endeavors, having ran for both governor and senator in the state of Georgia and succeeding at neither. She also has quite visible stains on her record, including her actions to pull funding for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood while she was Vice President of Public Policy at the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the most well-funded breast cancer charity in the country.
Given these circumstances, the national Republican strategy for the district has become to flush the district with millions of dollars in dog-whistle materials attacking Ossoff, rather than supporting their candidate. Their message has largely been to negatively tie Ossoff to Nancy Pelosi, San Francisco, and Hollywood through highlighting the sheer amount of out-of-state grassroots support he is receiving (his current fundraising total sits at an unprecedented $24 million, with two-thirds of that being from small-dollar donations). However — as reported by Issue One, a political watchdog that monitors money in politics — it has largely been the outside Republican spending, primarily by Political Action Commitees that receive millions in untraceable donations from corporations, that have made the bulk of out-of-state donations in the Sixth District special election.
Where those methods fail to work, they have begun to adopt some of the tactics belonging to the very fringes of the far right, associating Ossoff with Kathy Griffin and labeling him as simply another violent violent liberal in a particularly gory ad. This strategy was on full display at the first of two debates Jon Ossoff had with Karen Handel, in which she dodged policy questions and repeatedly declared him a liberal with the near vulgar disdain that reflects on the current status of our political discourse. Essentially, Karen Handel’s message ahead of the June 20 runoff election has become, “Do you hate liberals? Vote for me, I do too!”
In contrast, Jon Ossoff’s campaign has remained largely positive. He has made a point of toning back on his anti-Trump rhetoric to ensure he can attract those many disaffected, moderate Republican voters that he will need to attract if he is going to win. Ossoff very much knows who his audience is, which is why much of his message focuses on his promises for fresh and independent leadership and his plan for a modern economic future for the districts location in Metro Atlanta.
“It is very much a high stakes race with an enormous cost, both politically and monetarily, and the nature of this election is on full display in its final days.”
Local polls, which now consistently have Ossoff in the lead but still within the margin of error, show this strategy of principled (but relatively moderate) politics seems to be working. However, following the shock of last year’s presidential election, Ossoff has made it clear he and his campaign are going full-speed ahead until the polls close on election day, which is probably for the best. Even during the few days I was within the district, with a week until election day, I was bombarded with television ads both for and against Ossoff. It is very much a high stakes race with an enormous cost, both politically and monetarily, and the nature of this election is on full display in its final days.
Residents of the Georgia Sixth District seem to be very aware of the unusual circumstances surrounding this particular special election. Voter turnout, which tends to drop by significant amounts during special elections, has far exceeded that of a typical midterm election in the early vote and has begun to rival that of the 2016 presidential election. During my time within the Sixth District, the iconic peach-adorned Georgia voting stickers were visible everywhere. While election fatigue has begun to creep, there also seems to be the general feeling inside the district that they have the power to send a message to Washington.
Whether or not these circumstances end up working in favor of Ossoff has yet to be seen; and with the election date approaching, the general feeling that this election is going to come down to a tight margin has taken hold. This electoral uncertainty is certainly not welcome to most, seeing as how this specific election seems to be representing so much. As a district that had gone for Donald Trump in November by a relatively small margin, this election can very much be interpreted as a referendum on the beginning months of the Trump presidency and the electoral viability of the Trump-era Republican Party overall.
It can also be an understood as a test of whether or not a combination of the unpopularity of the Trump administration and a strong economic message can lead to Democratic success ahead of the highly anticipated 2018 midterm elections. Much time currently sits between November of 2018 and now, providing even more time for further political upheaval. However, it is still widely thought that districts such as the Georgia Sixth District, which experienced close margins in previous elections, are necessary pick-ups if the Democratic Party is to rally anti-Trump sentiments and weaponize them to gain a majority the House of Representatives.
It could be that the results of this election present a new way forward for the Democratic Party — a party that, rather than turning back in an attempt to regain the white working class (as many have suggested), looks toward the many disaffected moderate and educated voters of suburbia to rebuild a coalition.