I’ll come right out and say it. I’ve been incredibly frustrated by the narrative surrounding Jon Ossoff’s loss to Karen Handel in the June 20th special election for Tom Price’s vacated seat in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Ossoff lost to Handel by 3.8% of the vote – a larger margin than many were anticipating. This margin is driving much of the post-election narrative, but it’s important to note that in the last week leading up to the election, most of us on the ground were expecting a loss. This was not a surprise. The Ossoff campaign was up against incredible odds – odds we would do well to remember despite the record-setting influx of cash in the race. This was a district that hadn’t seen a Democratic win in 38 years. It’s a district that Tom Price won by 23 points or more in every election he ran. It’s a district that has been heavily gerrymandered out of three blue counties to be one of the most deeply red districts in the country. No matter how close this race was, and no matter how well Hillary Clinton did here, this was a district specifically designed to be won by a Republican, as State Senator Fran Miller let slip in a hot mic incident when she said, “These lines were not drawn to get Hank Johnson’s protégé to be my representative. And you didn’t hear that.” Georgia Six was the furthest thing from a swing district coming into 2017’s special election, and that’s exactly why President Trump chose Price to be the Secretary for Health and Human Services. This was an easily defendable seat.
Or so he thought.
In the end, Jon Ossoff did what no Democratic candidate had been able to do in nearly four decades: he made it socially acceptable to vote for a Democrat in Georgia’s 6th district. He mobilized 55,000 more Democratic voters in 2017 than turned out for the last midterm in 2014. Handel, on the other hand, got 5,000 fewer votes in 2017 than Price received in ’14. All of this happened despite massive media coverage and the shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise in the last week of the campaign, both of which may have helped to rally the GOP base to turn out for Handel. Another factor no one’s talking about, is that in Dekalb County, the bluest part of the district, torrential rains and flash flooding occurred for much of the late afternoon and early evening. Five inches of rain fell in six hours. Democratic voters are already notoriously tougher to turn out than Republicans. Add to that conditions that actually made it dangerous to vote, and it’s no wonder Democratic turnout was down in that crucial part of the district, while overall turnout was up. This, in my mind, is the biggest single contributor to the larger-than-expected margin. Campaigns are about doing the very best you can with messaging and mobilization, but at the end of the day, they’re still a roll of the dice. There are always factors outside of your control.
Despite these huge unforeseen obstacles, Jon Ossoff still closed the gap from the last off-year election in 2014 by an astonishing 28 points. That’s what Republicans are touting as a win? Even though turnout was up 24% from ’14 to ’17, the GOP lost 5,000 total votes while the Democrats gained 55,000 – nearly a 50% increase over that time. That doesn’t take a statistician to understand. The GOP has a problem, and that problem is only going to get bigger if they don’t heed the warnings of the 2017 special elections. Yes, storylines matter. Yes, wins matter. But if the Republican Party lets its voters become complacent while touting all these surprisingly hard-earned victories, they’ll be in for a rude awakening come 2018.
Andrew Redlawsk is a Democratic Organizer and Activist pursuing his Master’s in Political Management at The George Washington University. He volunteered with GOTV for the Jon Ossoff campaign during both the primary and runoff elections.