5 takeaways from Jon Ossoff’s showing in the Georgia special election

Jon Ossoff waves to supporters after speaking during an election-night watch party in Dunwoody, Ga. (Photo: John Bazemore/AP)
Jon Ossoff waves to supporters after speaking during an election-night watch party in Dunwoody, Ga. (Photo: John Bazemore/AP)

ATLANTA — To no one’s real surprise, President Trump and Jon Ossoff came to different conclusions regarding the final results of Tuesday’s special election in Georgia. On balance, however, Ossoff may have more to brag about than the president. Here are some takeaways on the second contested special election of the Trump era:

1. Jon Ossoff was never likely to win the Sixth District primary outright. No Georgia seat has flipped during a special election since 1872, and no Democrat has held the seat since the Carter era. Even with Democratic rage and Trump’s poor approval numbers helping boost Ossoff’s viability, he never polled above 45 percent — Huffington Post’s poll average had him at 42.5 percent heading into election day — and he needed to top 50 percent in a crowded field of 18 candidates to claim Tom Price’s vacated seat outright. It’s no wonder then, that Ossoff characterized receiving 48.1 percent of the vote as a “victory.”

Still, he’d earlier set the goal of winning the primary outright in a move that was more momentum dreams than realistic expectations-setting — and then found his performance in the primary judged on that.

2. Karen Handel is more vulnerable than she might seem, even with Trump now in her corner. Her inability to consolidate the GOP vote — she won 19.1 percent of the total field, against 10 other Republicans — despite being well known in the Sixth District suggests enthusiasm for her candidacy is not terrific. Handel was elected as Georgia secretary of state in 2006 and has since run failed statewide campaigns for governor (2010) and U.S. senator (2014). The partisan registration advantage in the district clearly favors the Republican, but she’s also not yet faced negative ads from Democrats or Democratic-leaning entities, while Ossoff has withstood a hammering from some $5 million in advertising and organizing efforts from national Republican groups and committees.

3. Trump made Ossoff’s bid, but his role in the June 20 face-off is a wildcard. Asked on CNN Wednesday morning if Trump will come campaign for her, Handel replied: “I would hope so,” adding: “It’s all hands on deck.” Trump recorded an anti-Ossoff robocall and tweeted six times about the contest before results were in, then crowed about the runoff Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

But knowledgeable Atlanta observers say that Trump, in addition to inspiring the outpouring of support from Democrats for Ossoff, was an albatross for Republicans in the race and those tied most closely to him did poorly in the primary. “Being a Trump loyalist didn’t pay off,” concluded Greg Bluestein of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. As pollster Geoff Garin pointed out Tuesday night, “Ossoff actually gained ground after Trump weighed in.”

And yet election day turnout in the wake of Trump’s tweets and robocall was high and predominantly Republican, while Ossoff decisively won the early vote. “In the end, Ossoff won 63.6% of the early/absentee vote. He won 41.2% of election day voters,” noted the New York Times’ Nate Cohn.

It’s hard to say if disparity was a result of Trump’s last-minute interventions or simply an artifact of the emerging pattern, already visible last November, in which Democrats are more likely to vote early or absentee while Republicans continue to turn out in greater numbers on Election Day.

4. Ossoff’s candidacy has invigorated Democrats and progressive activists. New groups that formed in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss proved critical to Ossoff’s get-out-the-vote operation, and six speakers at his election night victory party — all of them women — talked about how his campaign had given their anti-Trump sentiments and energy an outlet and a way to do something positive in their communities in groups such as Indivisible Georgia’s Sixth District, Pave It Blue and Liberal Moms of Roswell and Cobb. These groups will be key to Ossoff’s ability to bring voters back to the polls on June 20 — especially if national group support and outside donor enthusiasm for a rematch wane.

5. The Democratic swing in both Kansas and Georgia was substantial. The Democratic performance improvement over the previous in-district congressional candidate was substantial in both races. Yes, those candidates had a fraction of Ossoff’s war chest and support and were running against incumbents. But that’s also the point — Democrats are simply running stronger so far in 2017, even if they are not yet winning congressional seats.

Ossoff improved over the previous Democratic congressional candidate in the district by 10 points, and James Thompson in Kansas improved over the previous Democrat by 16 points. Those are big swings in support that would put a number of districts that are less heavily GOP into play. Democrats are seeking to flip 24 seats to retake the House.

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