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Georgia's congressional special election heads to runoff as Dems fail to land knockout blow

Democratic Candidate For Georgia's 6th District Leading In Polls On Election Day
Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to his supporters Tuesday night.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Democrat Jon Ossoff came in first place in the special election for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District on Tuesday night, but failed to clear the 50 percent he needed to win the seat outright.

As a result, Ossoff will face second-place finisher, Republican Karen Handel, in June for a runoff to fill the seat vacated by former Rep. Tom Price, now President Trump’s health and human services secretary.

Democrats will likely view the race as a victory, giving them steam looking ahead to 2018 midterms.

But the reality is that Ossoff — buoyed by more than $8 million in donations and an unprecedented surge of thousands of volunteers in the area — was looking to land a knockout blow on Tuesday. He benefited from a fractured field of 13 GOP candidates, and Republican voters are now expected to consolidate behind Handel — Georgia’s former secretary of state — ahead of the runoff on June 20.

“It becomes a huge deal if he actually wins outright — then you can say, ‘Wow, there really is something to this political strength of this resistance here,’” said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at Georgia State University, in an interview on Monday. “But if he gets a little over 40 percent, and fails to clear the runoff, that’s a good showing for the Democrats but not particularly extraordinary.”

The outcome also tempers the hopes of Democrats who had envisioned a shocking win in the Georgia Sixth that would serve as a wake-up call to congressional Republicans and a sign that the grassroots resistance movement opposing Trump could be translated into electoral strength. Price had won the district by close to 30 points, and an outright victory would, the theory went, demonstrate the electorate’s widespread frustration with Trump.

Instead, Democrats came up short — and will look instead to the upcoming rematch on June 20 as a chance to prove their mettle.

Why Democrats targeted the Georgia Sixth

Since Trump’s inauguration, three special elections to replace former Republican House member have drawn the national media’s attention — the Kansas Fourth District, where Republicans just barely held on to a seat that they won in 2016 by 31 points; Montana’s only congressional district, which former Rep. Ryan Zinke won last fall by 17 points; and the Georgia Sixth.

But Democrats and outside donors decided to concentrate the overwhelming majority of their firepower on Georgia’s Sixth District for a few distinct reasons.

One is that Hillary Clinton came one point from winning the vote share in the district in the 2016 presidential election. That suggested the district was within Democrats’ grasp, particularly if its affluent suburban voters were as frustrated with Trump’s administration as opinion polling suggested. As the Daily Kos’s Stephen Wolf pointed out on Twitter, the Georgia Sixth has the highest share of college-educated voters in any district (65 percent) not already held by the Democratic Party.

Another reason is that Ossoff’s campaign took off on its own, before any party bigwigs decided to hitch their fortunes to his bandwagon. When Ossoff announced his candidacy, his hometown paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, greeted his entrance as just one of many. Just 30 years old, Ossoff has only limited experience in politics or business, having served as a national security staffer for Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA). Ossoff also doesn’t live in the district, and many Republicans battered him in attack ads because of it.

But none of those factors limited his ability to skyrocket in popularity, particularly among online grassroots fundraising groups. Buoyed by a wave of anti-Trump resentment, Ossoff’s online fundraising shot up. As the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim documents, Ossoff’s rise was in large part powered by the Daily Kos, the left-leaning blog that helps raise money for Democratic candidates, which gave him its endorsement.

“Scarcely a week after we’d endorsed him, Ossoff broke our all-time fund-raising record for a single campaign, which was held by none other than Elizabeth Warren, for whom we’d raised over $400,000 back in 2012,” David Nir, the political director of Daily Kos, told New York magazine. “And a couple of weeks ago, he became our first-ever million-dollar candidate. As a result, something else interesting has happened. Our initial fund-raising was so berserk that it prompted a flurry of media attention, which in turn helped Ossoff raise more money, generating even more media attention. It’s been a very fruitful, positive feedback loop.”

All of that excitement led top Democrats to take notice, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made a big push into the race. Apparently it wasn’t enough to give him a clean victory.