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Runoff, Rhymes With Ossoff

This has been an unusual election season in my part of the Atlanta metro area, not just because of the time of year, but also because of the spirited and exceedingly well-funded campaign waged by hitherto unknown Democrat Jon Ossoff in what virtually everyone has regarded as a safe Republican district. Yesterday Ossoff won 48 percent of the vote in a “jungle primary” [1] while his numerous GOP opponents split the remainder. Since no candidate won a majority, there will be a runoff between the top two vote-getters, Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel, in June.  

In my northern DeKalb County neighborhood, the Ossoff yard signs alone outnumbered all the signs I’ve seen in the last few election cycles combined. Indeed, if you took your bearings only from my part of the district, as the Washington Post did in its most recent article [2] on the race, you’d think that Ossoff would win in a landslide. He had the money—over $8 million, more than 20 times what his closest competitor raised. He had the volunteer enthusiasm, with well-publicized, well-attended events all over the district and canvassers galore. And he had the attention of the national and local press.

Republicans, by contrast, seemed disorganized and dispirited, apparently more interested in criticizing one another and figuring out how much distance, if any, to put between themselves and the president than in reaching out to voters. I requested a yard sign from one campaign and never got a response. Let’s just say that candidate didn’t earn my vote. And after Ossoff held a well-received event on my campus [3], I contacted the head of the College Republicans, a group I advise, to ask if there was any interest in bringing any of the leading Republican candidates to campus. There wasn’t.

How did we get to a situation where Republicans are relieved to hold Ossoff below 50 percent and make it to June runoff in a district that they have held since 1978 and that Tom Price, now the HHS secretary, didn’t really have to break a sweat to win? If you’ll pardon my alliteration, I’ll offer three answers: trends, turnout, and Trump.


Like a lot of other relatively affluent suburban congressional districts, the sixth is a little less Republican than it used to be. It has become a bit more diverse [4], with increasing numbers of African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics earning the income that enables them to afford the McMansions in the swim/tennis neighborhoods near the highly rated schools. The voters may still be more or less fiscally conservative, but they’re left cold by social issues. Indeed, in my local state-legislative race last year, all three candidates in the Republican primary professed to oppose the religious-freedom legislation that roiled the legislature in three successive sessions. They seem to want pragmatic problem-solvers, not ideologues. And that’s a game that well-spoken, intelligent Democrats can play just as well as Republicans.

Then there’s turnout, which is typically lower in special elections. This election was no exception: Ossoff’s result—slightly more than 92,000 votes, 48.1 percent of those cast—falls short of the losing Democratic numbers in two of the last three elections and is less than half of what Price garnered in three of the last four elections. But Democratic voter enthusiasm and the Ossoff campaign’s get-out-the-vote operation—crucial factors in any low-turnout election—far outpaced anything on the Republican side of the ballot. To be sure, there is the countervailing tendency for older, better educated, and more affluent voters (once upon a time very predictably Republican) to turn out more reliably than anyone else. In this election, the Democratic enthusiasm advantage fought the Republican habitual-voting advantage to a draw.

I can’t resist sharing one example of misplaced Democratic enthusiasm. My wife told me that when she was voting, a woman in front of her was disappointed that she couldn’t vote to flip the sixth; it turned out that not only was she not registered to vote, but she didn’t even live in the district. The Ossoff messaging machine generated more enthusiasm than the polls could legally accommodate.

Finally, there’s Donald J. Trump, who last November ran well behind mainstream Republicans in this district and indeed all across the Atlanta metro area. With no burning local issues (other than an interstate highway) and no charismatic local personalities, the president, for better or worse (and given the first few months of his administration, mostly worse) is at the top of everyone’s list of reasons to vote one way or the other. The energy, as it has been since November, is largely on the anti-Trump side. With the exception of the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, most of the reasons one could offer to applaud the president are of more interest inside than outside the Beltway. And they tend to be dwarfed by the colossal (if perhaps temporary) failure to win the battle over Obamacare, not to mention the manifold missteps and intemperate tweets that are, of course, magnified by an adversarial press. To be sure, Donald Trump can still seem to do no wrong among his core supporters, but not many of them live in my district.

Where does this leave us going forward? After, I hope, a brief respite, our mailbox will again be full of campaign flyers and we will have to ignore most of the calls to our home phone (yes, we still have a landline). Built for a sprint in hopes of avoiding a runoff, the Ossoff campaign will have to restock its war chest and hope that it can restoke the energy of volunteers and voters. The Karen Handel campaign will have to raise enough money to be competitive and work hard to win the support of the Republican voters who didn’t support her yesterday.

I don’t expect the Ossoff campaign to be able to outspend its rival so lavishly over the next two months, and I do expect Handel and the Republicans to work hard to disabuse voters of the moderate, pragmatic image Ossoff has so assiduously cultivated. But what happens over the next two months at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will matter a lot. And all I’m willing to predict there is that Donald Trump will be unpredictable.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is professor of politics at Oglethorpe University and a longtime sixth-district resident.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Runoff, Rhymes With Ossoff"

#1 Comment By cka2nd On April 19, 2017 @ 11:34 am

Rachel Maddow – I still check in occasionally – was working hard to tamp down Democratic expectations when Ossoff had over half of the vote with only 23% of the results in, emphasizing that his strongest areas were among the first reporting. I am actually therefore a bit surprised that he ended up as close to 50% as he got.
That bodes well for his chances, but I imagine if he wins he’ll be your typically awful mainstream Democratic congressman, more interested in assuaging the business class than anyone else.

#2 Comment By collin On April 19, 2017 @ 12:08 pm

This is heck of a sour grapes opinion on the GA06 election and that is a lot that does not bode well for long term Republicans. Even as a D, I do believe Handel will win ~52% to ~48% because when all else fails revert to the mean and the Rs will be more focused.

1) The worst point here is “It has become a bit more diverse, with increasing numbers of African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics earning the income that enables them to afford the McMansions in the swim/tennis neighborhoods near the highly rated schools.” Yes, the Ds were over-confident on minority votes in 2016, but that does not mean Sour Grapes Trumpism 2016 is not good message either. The minorities are increasingly catching up with White citizens economically and politically. (Yes I love multicultural California!) The problem with HRC was she ran a great campaign map of 2024.

2) In terms of Obamacare, wasn’t Trump promise to improve but not lose much coverage? Good health care coverage is just beltway stuff here but real kitchen table politics. Trump and Ryan failed at this.

3) They seem to want pragmatic problem-solvers, not ideologues. At this point, I don’t see Trump as either. His administration outside of military advisers are not particularly good while Trump does not like to sit down become a pragmatic problem-solver.

#3 Comment By JWJ On April 19, 2017 @ 2:29 pm

$8M is a HELL OF ALOT OF MONEY for a congressional race.
Don’t forget about Hollywood. Samuel L Jackson working hard for the Democrat. Didn’t Hillary get 47% or 48% in this congressional district?

The question is how did the Democrat not get 50% with $8,000,0000?

#4 Comment By ADC Wonk On April 19, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

FWIW, most polls had Ossoff getting in the low 40’s.

Josh Marshall’s take:

This is a very GOP district. It’s Tom Price’s district. It was Newt Gingrich’s district. An untested Democratic candidate with no prior experience in elected office just came very close to winning it outright. Prior to 2016, Price never came in under 64.51% of the vote. In November he took 61.7%. This is a massive swing in the Democrats direction.

Compared to 2016, Ossoff bettered Clinton’s percentage by 1.6% in Dem-leaning DeKalb and 1.4% in GOP-leaning Cobb. Most of Fulton is still out so we don’t know there yet. That’s compared to the 2016 top of the ticket. Compared to 2016, for the congressional seat, this is at least a ten point swing in the Dems’ direction.

If Democrats get anything close to the swing they got in Kansas and here tonight in 2018 they will score a massive win.

Yeah, one can spin this that these were one-offs, and doesn’t mean anything for the GOP. But Georgia Republican state Sen. Fran Millar had a sobering candid take on it:

I’ll be very blunt: These lines were not drawn to get Hank Johnson’s protégé to be my representative. And you didn’t hear that. They were not drawn for that purpose, OK? They were not drawn for that purpose.

#5 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 19, 2017 @ 3:21 pm

“In my northern DeKalb County neighborhood, the Ossoff yard signs alone outnumbered all the signs I’ve seen in the last few election cycles combined. Indeed, if you took your bearings only from my part of the district, as theWashington Post did in its most recent article on the race, you’d think that Ossoff would win in a landslide. ”

Good point about DeKalb County which is hardly representative of the Georgia 6th Congressional District. DeKalb County, primarily a suburban county, is the second-most-affluent county with an African-American majority in the United States, behind Prince George’s County, Maryland, in suburban Washington D.C…In presidential elections DeKalb County has voted Democratic in every election since 1988. Since 2000 the Democratic percentages of the DeKalb presidential vote have been 70% (2000), 73% (2004), 79% (2008), 78% (2012), 80% (2016).

In contrast with DeKalb County’s 54% African-American population, the entire Georgia 6th Congressional District is only 13% African-American and the Democratic percentages of the presidential vote have been 32% (2000), 39% (2004), 37% 2008, 38% (2012), and 47% (2016).

Of some interest: The district’s boundaries were redrawn during the Obama Administration following the 2010 Census, which granted an additional congressional seat to Georgia. The first election using the new district boundaries was the 2012 Congressional election.

#6 Comment By Carlstrom On April 19, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

I grew up in that district – really Dunwoody, and I think this is somewhat interesting. Traditionally, it has always been a Republican stronghold and I it still is. But, with all the construction of townhouses, condos and apartments (upscale all) in that area, I have seen a great demographic change from when I grew up in the 70s. There seems to be an influx of younger folks who are not as wedded the traditional values of God, family and country as was the hallmark of that region. But that just may mean more very moderate democrats and mix of very conservative and moderate Republicans. I think the Republicans should win, though the Republican candidate has run for any and every office in Georgia there is to run for. That this Ossoff has a wife who is a physician may actually help him a bit as well. Depending on how much money is involved it could be close, but history would say otherwise. But there has been a significant change in some of the densely developed areas of the district.

#7 Comment By Liberty&Virtue On April 19, 2017 @ 4:34 pm

I also live in the sixth district, and I’ll say this take is pretty much on point. Ossoff’s campaign machinery and his supporter’s GOTV passion were impressive, while the Republican candidates were overall a snoozefest.

If Ossoff wins–unlikely but not impossible–the only chance he has of serving longer than one term is if he is able to hold his progressivism in check and take a moderate stance. He’s young, attractive, fresh, and seems like a decent guy, but I really think a not insignificant part of his success is riding the “Resist” wave.

#8 Comment By Marquee Moon On April 19, 2017 @ 4:52 pm

Ossoff might do better in the runoff, but I doubt it. More likely he’ll do marginally worse.

He’s about to undergo close scrutiny, and if the interviews I’ve seen are any indication, the charm of novelty will fade pretty quickly. He comes across as slippery and phony in person, and he’s already been caught “misrepresenting” his resume and FiveThirtyEight’s estimate of his chances. Not the best starting place for running against Trump’s manifest flaws.

Bottom line – so far these elections have been status quo. Wake me up when the Democrats get their act together and win a red district.

#9 Comment By WillW On April 19, 2017 @ 5:23 pm

You know who else couldn’t vote because he doesn’t live in the district? Ossoff. That’s really all that needs to be said.

#10 Comment By Carlstrom On April 19, 2017 @ 5:41 pm

Somehow my comment was not posted. I grew up in this district in Dunwoody. And it has always been a Republican area, particularly with traditional value voters – God, Family, Country. That was my experience living in that area. The district has changed somewhat in the past 10 years. There has been significant development and densification – albeit – upscale, that is bringing in a somewhat younger demographic of voters who are not wedded to the traditional values. However, it is still a mostly affluent area. But I see many houses that were the foundation of the neighborhoods and family homes that fed the schools there up for rent or lease. Also there are many condos and townhomes and high rises that are now dotting a portion of the district. I believe that the fact that the democrats wife is a physician may help him some, and I believe it possible that the record of the Republican candidate in running for multiple offices unsuccessfully may not help. Still, I think that depending on the money involved, Republicans should be able to win this. They surely need to win this.

#11 Comment By Kevin On April 19, 2017 @ 7:59 pm

“The question is how did the Democrat not get 50% with $8,000,0000?

1. Ossof raised 8 million, but didn’t spend 8 million. He wisely kept much of his haul in reserve for the runoff.
2. Republicans outside groups spent a good 5 million on anti-Ossof ads, and the other republicans competing all tried to get as many people as possible to the voting booth- so overall spending on the Republican side was larger than his spending.
3. It’s an off-season race in a district that didn’t elect a Democrat in 30 years.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 19, 2017 @ 8:31 pm

“(Yes I love multicultural California!)’

Low cost counseling from UCSD psychiatric can help with this.

Note: just poking fun.

#13 Comment By Johann On April 20, 2017 @ 10:05 am

Nothing to see here. Move along. No really. Atlanta continues to sprawl. The demographics are changing. Remaining Republicans are big city Republicans of the Mitt Romney sort. Ossoff got about the same percentage as the Hillary did in the presidential election. Nothing has changed since the presidential election.

#14 Comment By Tony D. On April 20, 2017 @ 5:03 pm

Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann didn’t live in the district (MN-6) she represented during her last term – the boundaries had been redrawn and her house became part of the 4th, which is dominated by St. Paul and therefore a Democratic lock. A representative must live in the state he or she represents, but not the district, is what we found out that year.

#15 Comment By Rock S On April 20, 2017 @ 5:09 pm

This was delightful. I hope this author contributes more articles to TAC.

Regarding WillW’s comment about Ossoff not being able to vote in his district: the fact that he temporarily moved “a mile and a half down the street to support [his girlfriend] while she finishes medical school” (his words, reported on Fox) certainly doesn’t strike me as disqualifying. On the contrary, I find the opposing candidates to be diminished by those kinds of zingers. Just like their ads attacking him for dressing up as Han Solo in college.

#16 Comment By kalendjay On April 20, 2017 @ 7:14 pm

You say the Trump factor may have pulled down the GOP in this election? More likely the Congress pulled itself down. If you have to flog the dead horse on which you ride to pull past the finish line, what do you do? Present yourself as yet another outsider, to continue the policies of a consummate insider? Promise reform, the n-th year in a row? Shove your elbows into your fellow party members? Wag your finger and take the hard line?

Friends, all that has been done over the years — by Democrats.

#17 Comment By collin On April 21, 2017 @ 10:29 am

EliteComm Inc,

Ha Ha Ha….I still wonder if Trump’s victory in 2016 will become like the Prop 187 and Pete Wilson victory in California 1994. Sure, Republicans won that year but Prop 187 true in impact was the legend of the campaign that still impacts our voters.

#18 Comment By Jeff On April 21, 2017 @ 5:58 pm

The problem is that Trump actually did better with Latinos and African-Americans than Mitt Romney in 2012. There’s no reason to suspect that Hillary wouldve done any better in 2024

#19 Comment By Kevin O’Keeffe On April 22, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

In 2014, the high-profile, relatively popular Tom Price, managed to win re-election with barely 60 percent of the vote (that sounds good, but is actually somewhat lowish, by American Congressional re-election standards). It’s not unusual for the other party to pick up a few points (from 40, to 48) when they are no longer facing an opponent with the advantage of incumbency. This is a perfectly ordinary outcome, that is being trumpeted as a strong showing for the Democrats, because that is what the media likes to do.

#20 Comment By collin On June 20, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

The problem is that Trump actually did better with Latinos and African-Americans than Mitt Romney in 2012.

Trump did worse with minority voters than either Bush 2000 or 2004 runs as well. The problem was not Trump/Romney but Obama/HRC here.

#21 Comment By jk On June 20, 2017 @ 5:58 pm

In DNC funding eyes, GA is still flyover redneck country.