In the wake of Jon Ossoff’s defeat Tuesday night in the special election for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, many were quick to blame the candidate’s flaws. Despite the immense boost from out-of-state donors, which helped make this the most expensive House race in history, Ossoff suffered from a bland image and a bland message — a symptom of the larger disarray within the Democratic Party.
“His campaign slogan proclaimed him ‘Humble. Kind. Ready to Fight’ — a positionless vessel of 2017’s cross-cutting political angst,” writes the Atlantic’s Molly Ball.
Ossoff gave his opponent Karen Handel the power to characterize him — and she successfully tarred him as an outsider, as a Democratic operative, as someone culturally out of touch with his district. There are many reasons why Ossoff lost, but a major one, as my colleague Matt Yglesias argues, is that Ossoff allowed Handel to make the election about identity politics.
The best illustration of these potent cultural resentments came last night in the form of a rant from conservative Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson.
“Democrats still have literally no idea why they keep losing elections,” Carlson said on his Tuesday night show. “If they did, they would have run a real candidate with a real job who understands the constituents he is attempting to represent.”
Instead, Democrats put up a 30-year-old semi-employed documentary filmmaker who can’t even vote for himself because he doesn’t live in the district.
He’s got a ton of trendy, rich-people positions on just about every topic. The abortion people love him. He is gravely concerned about climate and childhood obesity and the availability of organic kale. He thinks illegal aliens are noble. He went to the London School of Economics. He’s super fit and way smarter than you are.
Handel’s messaging largely hit the same notes. Anti-Ossoff ads tried to link him to figures on the left like Kathy Griffin and Nancy Pelosi. They made hay out of the fact that he lived outside of the district. One of the ads literally said, “He’s just not one of us.”
The funny thing is that Carlson, 48, wasn’t all that different from Ossoff once upon a time. Both of them are preppy private school graduates who went into journalism. Through much of the 2000s, Carlson cultivated the persona of an upper-crust Republican, in part through strategic deployment of a bow tie. That image became a handicap during the Tea Party uprising, so Carlson ditched the bow tie and tried to reposition himself as a representative of the people.
It’s been a surprisingly effective turnaround: A few months ago, Carlson was tapped to replace Bill O’Reilly in the 8 pm slot at Fox News, where his ratings have been strong, consistently beating CNN’s Anderson Cooper and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. One glance at Carlson’s show explains why he’s so popular among Fox News’s red-meat audience — he devotes most of his time mocking liberals, deepening a sense that they are hypocritical and holier than thou.
Tucker Carlson’s recent success is a reminder that cultural resentments remain a powerful force on the right. Ossoff’s defeat offers the same lesson. How Democrats can make these identity politics play in their favor remains one of the many questions facing the party in the coming years.