When Jon Ossoff launched his campaign for the Georgia congressional seat formerly held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Democrats mobilized to bolster his candidacy because they believed he could win. Yet, Ossoff’s failure to beat Republican Karen Handel has not produced the kind of reflection that should follow the outcome that occurred in one of the most expensive congressional races in history.
Amy Goodman, host of “Democracy Now!”, asked Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and Democratic state senator Nan Orrock a basic question: “Is this not just a battle between Republicans and Democrats but [also] the heart of the Democratic Party?”
“Right now, [a] massive issue in the country is the issue of healthcare. He was opposed to single-payer healthcare. Many felt he was running away from a progressive Democratic platform, as he ran against the Republican candidate. Do you think this is a message to the Democratic Party, almost like the Hillary-Bernie Sanders divide, that they’re going in the wrong direction?”
Each gave telling answers, which are representative of the reaction of Democrats to Ossoff’s loss.
Warnock answered, “I’ll let the politicians get into the mix of how to, you know, win an election,” unwilling to critique Ossoff’s campaign.
“I am not going to Monday morning quarterback on Jon Ossoff’s race, which was a remarkable race, an incredible gain from where the last Republican that ran was 22 points up, and we were two points lower than 50 percent, in a race that was not supposed to ever even be feasible,” Orrock declared.
This is the common refrain from Democrats. Georgia’s sixth congressional district is a Republican district so that is why Ossoff lost. But it is disingenuous because President Donald Trump only beat Hillary Clinton by 1.5 points in the district.
Democrats did not put an exorbitant amount of money and resources into Ossoff to pull off a moral victory. They invested this amount because the party establishment thought they could peel off “reluctant Trump voters” and show they had a strong chance of flipping districts in the 2018 midterm election. So, what effect refusing to support single-payer healthcare and other progressive agenda items had is a question those involved in boosting his campaign should confront.
The congressional district was supposedly one, where Democrats could capitalize on “reluctant Trump voters.”
Ossoff made appeals to respect, civility, kindness, and decency that were directed at Trump. He focused on partisanship in Washington, D.C., like previous Democratic candidates, who lost their races.
Focusing on the major character defects of Trump and the politics he practices is not a winning strategy for recruiting “reluctant Trump voters.” They are still, as an Atlanta Journal Constitution survey showed, tremendously loyal to the Republican Party.
At minimum, their common sense on issues have to be challenged directly in ways that incentivize them to go from being opposed to Democrats to being open to voting for them.
It is pretentious to say they will never support Democrats because they are Republicans. That is insular thinking that ensures the Democrats continue to hemorrhage seats at all levels of power.
Let’s consider the issue of health care, a supposedly high-ranking concern for “reluctant Trump voters.”
What would have happened if Ossoff came out for a national Medicare For All program?
In a suburban red district, what if he appealed to Republicans who dislike the Affordable Care Act? What if he adopted a message like Senator Bernie Sanders and National Nurses United that addressed the very real defects in the ACA?
What if he made the case that beating back the GOP’s cold-hearted health insurance bill—which not one state supports—was only possible with Medicare For All?
Instead, Ossoff ran with a health care message Clinton pushed. Ossoff said he would fight for “quality, affordable health care.” But what do these buzzwords mean in terms of policy?
Is it any wonder Republican voters tuned this out? It was a vapid message. On the other hand, a message about workers saving thousands of dollars on premiums and employers saving more than $10,000 a year might have intrigued voters.
Several Democrats point to the extensive voter suppression, which likely occurred in the election. The disenfranchisement of voters is a very serious issue. And yet, one cannot help but think Ossoff did not quite capitalize on this enough in the race.
Handel has quite a history of supporting voter suppression as Georgia’s secretary of state. She incorporated a “voter verification” system that disproportionately prevented people of color from voting in the 2008 presidential election. Ossoff could have made a much bigger deal about the right to vote as an issue, where Handel was on the wrong side.
Finally, it is simply not true that Democratic candidates cannot win in Republican strongholds. Christine Pellegrino, a former Sanders delegate, won the New York State Assembly District 9 seat in a special election and pulled off a huge upset, where Trump garnered 60 percent of the vote.
Natalie Vowell, who was also a Sanders delegate, won a school board seat in St. Louis. Chokwe Lumumba was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.
There are down-ballot campaigns in the United States, where strong candidates who come out of movements or have strong relationships with movements, are winning. Their strategy contrasts with the failed strategy of the Democratic Party establishment, which is to simply appeal to red state voters to support them as smarter, better, and leaner Republicans.
Even though millions were pouring in from progressives and left of center Democrats, who undoubtedly support key groups doing work for social and economic justice, those groups never really left a mark on the message of his campaign. That may be what truly undermined Ossoff’s potential to win.