The implications of Republican Karen Handel’s victory over Democrat Jon Ossoff, a Georgetown graduate, in a special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District are not yet clear. For a race that was supposed to set the tone for the country, Handel’s victory has done anything but in the days after the contest.
Some see Ossoff’s performance in a district, which in 2016 Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price won by a 23-point margin, as an indicator of a favorable political climate for Democrats. Given Handel’s four percentage point victory, a 19 percent change in voting is nothing to ignore.
However, a narrow race in the 6th Congressional District can not be extrapolated to mean the country is enraged and ready to “vote-out” an unpopular Republican government.
As Nate Cohen of the New York Times revealed, the percentage of educated adults in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District explains why the district was competitive. Georgia’s 6th was one of 15 Congressional Districts where more than half of the voters had a college degree. With educated voters breaking for Clinton over Trump by a large margin in the 2016 presidential election and contributing to what some termed a political realignment, a district largely unrepresentative of the country’s educational attainment cannot be an accurate indicator of the political climate.
Granted, Secretary Price’s much larger margin of victory relative to Handel’s seems to be convincing evidence for a lag in support for the Republican Party. However, failure to take into account Price’s popularity in Georgia’s 6th, the resilience of the incumbency effect, and the unpopularity of Price’s 2016 opponent may compel one to attribute too much of the special election’s outcome to the dynamics of national politics.
If one thing is clear, however, it is that Handel’s victory has rekindled a movement among Democrats already wary of Nancy Pelosi’s leadership. Pelosi, a long-reviled politician in conservative circles, was a prominent figure in pro-Handel TV advertisements that attempted to link Ossoff to the former Speaker of the House. Although the longstanding Democratic leader will likely retain her leadership position in the House, renewed challenges to her role as head of the Democratic Caucus paints a picture of a party reeling from failure to capture a seemingly favorable district.
With the Democrats spending 30 million dollars on the most expensive House of Representatives race in history, questions about Ossoff’s fitness as a candidate still linger. Ossoff, although managing to raise large sums of money thanks to out-of-state donors eager to hand President Trump a political defeat, did not live in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District; steering the conversation away from policy towards where he claimed residency. At 30 years old, Ossoff’s experience became an issue in the campaign, with Handel running a advertisements featuring him dressed as Han Solo talking about alcohol and parodying “Uptown Girl” as a Georgetown Chime.
Although the Democratic Party will continue to face an internal identity crisis that has pitted Democrats calling for ideological moderation against those wanting to channel an economic populist message that appealed to Trump’s white working-class base, Ossoff’s loss, despite being high-profile, is unlikely to garner change. With President Trump’s approval ratings still hovering around 40%, Democrats will likely march on towards the midterms hoping to ride a wave of anti-Trump sentiment. Only after the 2018 midterms when all is said and done will Democrats finally aptly contextualize Handel’s narrow triumph as a sign of hope and party expansion, or the dominance of GOP on the national stage in the absence of a strong adversary.