If I were to have told you that a 30-year-old investigative filmmaker and former political aide who had never served in any elected legislative capacity would come within 2 percentage points of becoming a congressman in a field of 17 other candidates, would you have believed me? What if I also were to have told you that this young upstart is running as a Democrat in a district that has not been represented by a Democrat in almost forty years?
Only in the Trump era can a story like this not only be feasible, but also true. On April 18, Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District (GA-6), which constitutes the suburbs outside of Atlanta’s metropolitan sector, held a special election for the House of Representative position left open due to Tom Price’s appointment to as Secretary of Health and Human Services. In this nonpartisan blanket primary, during which all candidates, regardless of political party, vying for the same elected office run against each other at once, Jon Ossoff, the leading Democratic candidate, received 92,390 votes, constituting 48.1% of the district and falling short of the 50%+ margin to win the seat outright. In a June 20 runoff, Ossoff will face the next highest vote-getter, former Georgia Secretary of State and Republican frontrunner Karen Handel, who received 37,993 votes and 19.8% of the district. Whichever candidate breaks the 50% threshold in the runoff will win the vacant GA-6 seat.
As a resident of GA-6, this election, quite literally, hits home. After coincidentally going back to my hometown Atlanta suburbs the day after the special election, something felt different: people cared. Friends of mine, mostly between 18 and 22, told me about their experiences volunteering, canvassing, and feeling as if they had made a difference as a part of the Ossoff campaign. Although my passion for politics bloomed while going to school in New York, I fully understood the consequences that this special election carries on a local and national level.
GA-6 has voted overwhelmingly red since 1979 for three notable Republicans: former Speaker of the House and “Republican Revolution” leader Newt Gingrich (1979-1999), current Senior Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson (1999-2005), and Price (2005-2017). The 1990 GA-6 election, during which Gingrich held his seat by 0.6% against Democratic opponent David Worley, is the only exception to what has traditionally been Republican dominance. However, as evidenced by Ossoff’s wide support group beyond GA-6, the campaign to “flip the sixth” has threatened to upend precedent and take a seat away from the Republican-controlled House.
The unusually large amount of campaign yard signs I saw supporting Ossoff, let alone a Democratic candidate, demonstrate that the left-leaners of the GA-6 have pooled all their resources towards the up-and-comer. This unity for Ossoff threatens the district’s Republican stranglehold along with the fractured Republican support for its candidates in the primary. After witnessing the usual amount of yard signs promoting GOP candidates, I noticed the inconsistencies of whom the signs endorsed, mostly favoring Handel, Dan Moody, Bob Gray and Judson Hill. This perfectly reflected the reality of eleven Republican candidates vying for Price’s old seat in the primary. Though Republicans received 51% of the April 18 vote, with Handel leading the field, the massive coalition for Ossoff coupled with the Republicans’ failure to rally around one candidate in the primary nearly cost them their seat.
This turn of events may have been expected, however. While both Republican nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney outperformed Obama by a wide margin in GA-6 during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, respectively, Trump squeaked past Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the district this past November. The McCain and Romney vote and its contrast with the Trump vote deduces that GA-6 prefers establishment conservatives, and Handel’s political ideology, which aligns with Price’s, fits the bill. Statistics back this up, as well: the candidates who identified the most with Trump performed worse in the primary; though she supported him for President, Handel shied away from mentioning the President during her campaign.
Per the inevitable, the Republican Party has coalesced around Handel since she secured the nomination. The President himself has vocalized his support for the GOP nominee by attacking Ossoff both on Twitter and more fiercely in an April speech to the National Rifle Association in Atlanta, and he will likely continue to do so leading up to the June 20th runoff. Handel has followed suit by graciously asking for and accepting Trump’s endorsement. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan will even make a trip to the district next week to stump for Handel and raise money for what has already become the most expensive House race in history, with nearly $30 million spent on TV ads alone at time of writing.
President Trump investing in Handel begs an important question for Democrats: is this election pro-Ossoff or anti-Trump? The answer may be two-fold. Many 1990 GA-6 voters, particularly organized labor groups, resented Gingrich for standing against government intervention of the now defunct Eastern Air Lines, and Worley, a 32-year-old lawyer whom Gingrich had defeated twice before, represented the alternative, almost ‘flipping the sixth’ himself. In 2017, Trump’s low approval ratings, particularly that by the Democrats and left-leaners, parallel the circumstances that almost cost Gingrich his seat twenty seven years ago. Furthermore, many major news outlets have presented this election as a referendum against Trump, citing it as a test against the GOP.
Because of these circumstances, this election has transformed into a pro-Ossoff campaign. GA-6 resident desperate to turn the district blue in spite of the 45th President jumped on the bandwagon for a young, charismatic, scandal-free candidate who possesses “...a deliberative, professorial style somewhat similar to Barack Obama’s.” Ossoff has not only been endorsed by current Georgia Congressmen, Hank Johnson (GA-4) and John Lewis (GA-5), former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, Bernie Sanders, the Daily Kos, and many celebrities, but he has also received millions of dollars in support. Although Ossoff lacks political experience and does not even live in GA-6 (though he previously lived there and currently lives just outside the district), he represents the anti-Trump coalition, kick starting his campaign with the slogan “Make Trump Furious.” Thus, a vote for Ossoff is assuredly a vote against Trump.
With the expectation that the Republican Party unites around Handel, Ossoff has an uphill battle despite his strong primary showing. The district has not sent a Democrat to Washington since 1974, and though Ossoff represents the best chance to “flip the sixth,” a Republican candidate with a high degree of support has historically maintained a winning edge in this district. Ossoff can very well win this election, but even if he loses, his campaign and the recent Kansas special election has put a scare into Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress on notice. If the 2010 House Elections are any historical indication, the GA-6 special election foreshadows the Democratic Party rising in 2018.
Just as interestingly, however, we should ask ourselves whether the competitiveness of the district is actually sustainable, to which I would answer: almost certainly. While there is merit to the notion that GA-6 would not have been in play had a more establishment GOP presidential candidate been on the ballot last November (i.e. Mitt Romney won the district by 72,000 votes in 2012), it can be argued that the demographic shifts within both the district itself and Georgia as a whole would have become too powerful to keep GA-6 an uncompetitive Republican seat for much longer. As more companies have relocated and/or expanded to the district over the last twenty years, GA-6 has experienced a notable influx of new residents, many of whom are non-white and college-educated. In Sandy Springs, a city located in the southernmost part of the district and home to the likes of UPS, Cox Enterprises, and Mercedes-Benz USA, the population of Asian persons increased 66.74% in the period 2000-2010. Likewise, the population of persons Hispanic or Latino origin grew 57.01% over the same period of time, all while the population of Caucasian persons fell 8.26%. I expect to see this trend reinforced in the 2020 census, with a strong likelihood of even higher growth among non-white people.
Most telling for the future, the Ossoff campaign has employed and motivated an upbeat and young base that has entered politics, many of whom I know personally. After getting a taste of participating in an election, these Ossoff supporters have demonstrated an eagerness to further their political activist efforts, especially in spite of President Trump.
Update: On June 20, 2017, Karen Handel defeated Jon Ossoff by a 51.9%-48.1% margin, surpassing the pre-election polling projections that predicted a deadlock the entire way. While Ossoff won early voting by nearly 10,000 votes, Handel greatly outperformed her opponent by 20,000 votes on election day voting. While Handel's victory extends the Republican grasp over GA-6 and leaves Democrats continuing to look for answers after their party's fifth special election loss in 2017, Democrats have continually outperformed their benchmarks in special elections and, as was the case with Republicans and Obama, the words "President Trump" have shown no signs of slowing down an impassioned Democratic base. This will make many House seats in the Trump era more competitive, let alone in Georgia's Sixth District.
- Jake Steel & Jay Edlin (Guest Contributor from GA Tech)