In Georgia, Handel Wins Handily, Ossoff Penalized for Centrism

GOP candidate benefited from middle of the road policies while Democratic candidate failed to turn out party’s base

Karen Handel. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

GOP candidate Karen Handel won a surprisingly easy victory over Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff in the special congressional election in Georgia’s sixth district. The results were determined by which campaign had the better strategy—not demographics. Handel won by ignoring calls from conservatives to run the race as a hard core right-winger.

Like many Georgians, I thought Ossoff had the race in hand. He did much better in the first round of voting and consistently led the polls, with the exception of one poll taken by the GOP-leaning Trafalgar Group.

But I got a different sense of the race when talking to Ossoff volunteers and Georgia Republicans hours before the polls closed. I wasn’t surprised that Handel won by five points.

“I expect it to be verrrrry close,” a nervous Ossoff voter emailed me in a tone very different from the confident-sounding campaign. “I am not calling it!”

When I pressed for details, I got an earful.

“I volunteered some for the Ossoff campaign, and there was some dissent among the volunteers that the campaign wasn’t focusing enough on the LGBTQ community, Hispanics, African-Americans or Asians,” she wrote. “I do believe the campaign missed out on some key opportunities. Plus, the DNC sent out a lot of non-locals so they didn’t really know where it was appropriate to campaign. Handel’s campaign was run on a small-scale and more focused.”

When I wrote about why Democrats are losing special elections nationwide, I noted the pitfalls of trying to win these contests with outside operatives and by nationalizing the races.

A Georgia Republican I interviewed on election day agreed with the Ossoff volunteer. “I believe the Ossoff campaign is off the mark with attempting to sway Republican votes. He should have stuck with his actual beliefs to get the large Hispanic and Jewish and wealthy transient Democrats in the sixth. He is projecting himself as a Republican-lite instead of a Democrat.”

As for Karen Handel, she usually strikes some fairly middle-of-road position, whether speaking before my college students or debating with Republican rivals at a trailer park debate. In this special election campaign, she adopted a more moderate tone than hard core conservatives wanted.

“Some thought her middle-of-the-road approach looked weak and indecisive. ‘You can’t go kind of half-in,’ conservative host Laura Ingraham told Handel on her radio show in June. ‘You’ve got to go full-on,’” Goodwin noted of the conservative’s take. According to a Georgia legislator I talked to, Handel adopted a more independent-minded tone. It paid off on election night.

“They [Republicans] may take a lesson from Handel’s careful positioning on the president as a potential path forward for 2018,” Goodwin added.

Of course, both groups are likely to spin the results. Trump narrowly carried the district in 2016, but the GOP has held the district since 1979. Candidates like Newt Gingrich, Johnny Isakson and Tom Price won the seat by large margins.

As they prepare for 2018, both parties should draw lessons from the results. Democrats need to focus on turning out their base, and utilizing locals matters more than a flood of outside money and experts. It’s not just how much you raise, but how you spend it. After all, on the same day Democrats did just as well in a South Carolina district that they generally ignored. For Republicans, eschewing hard-right policies seems like the smart thing to do in a district that could have gone either way. Both parties should take both lessons to heart as we look toward the 2018 elections.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.