Analysis

Jon Ossoff vs. Donald Trump: Why the Georgia Special Election Results Matter

Trump's intense involvement in the home stretch reflected the GOP's deep worry that an outright victory by Jon Ossoff would fuel Democratic moral looking ahead to 2018

Jon Ossoff and Donald Trump.
Jon Ossoff and Donald Trump. Joe Raedle/AFP, AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Only one thing felt certain after the nail-bitingly close result of Georgia’s special congressional election on Tuesday: that the amount of President Donald Trump-related political spin that follows will be dizzying.

The intensity of the battle of interpretation stems from the fact that the Georgia race is the last of three special 2017 elections that are viewed as a political bellwether for both parties as they look ahead to the 2018 midterms. The Democrats are hoping the energy produced by the so-called “resistance” and unhappiness with Trump in both parties might be powerful enough to wrest back control of the House of Representatives in 2018. Republicans are fearing the same thing.

The dueling narratives began the moment the votes were tallied. Thirty-year-old Democratic newcomer Jon Ossoff took 48.3 percent of the vote, falling just two percentage points short of the outright win he would have needed to take the seat. The result means he will face his closest rival, Republican Karen Handel, in a June 20 runoff. Handel, Georgia’s former secretary of state, received 20 percent of the vote in a field of 11 Republicans. None of the others came close to her showing but still fractured the GOP support.

If he wins, Ossoff will be Georgia’s first Jewish congressman since Democrat Elliott Levitas in 1984.

The biggest spinner was actually the young candidate himself, who declared his showing “a victory for the ages,” despite the fact his campaign did not immediately achieve its stated goal of “flipping” Georgia’s 6th District from red to blue. In his Election Night speech, Ossoff declared: “There is no amount of dark money, super PAC, negative advertising that can overcome real grassroots energy like this. So bring it on.”

The highest-profile GOP message came from the White House, when Trump himself tweeted that the runoff represented a major victory, even in what is supposed to be a Republican stronghold.

Aware that the special election was being viewed as a referendum on his first 100 days in office, Trump had attacked Ossoff relentlessly in the 72 hours leading up to the vote, tweeting that the “super Liberal Democrat” would “be a disaster,” and that he “doesn’t even live in the district.” Trump recorded a robocall, offering the dire prediction to Georgians that “if you don’t vote tomorrow, Ossoff will raise your taxes, destroy your health care and flood our country with illegal immigrants.”

The last accusation reflected the fact that the progressive Jewish candidate was at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in February, following Trump’s first executive order banning Syrian refugees and those arriving from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The documentary filmmaker and former congressional staffer-turned-politician said he identified with those being turned away, because “American Jews all share that immigrant story, and that perspective hardens my resolve to fight for an open and optimistic vision of our country where if you work hard you can get ahead, where we welcome those who come here to build the country.”

Trump’s intense involvement in the home stretch of the campaign reflected the deep worry among Republicans that an outright victory by a novice Democrat would fuel Democratic morale for 2018.

It’s not clear, however, whether Trump’s endorsements were a help or hindrance in the suburban Georgia district. The Republican field had been a mixed bag of Trump loyalists and politicians who distanced themselves from the president. Handel fell into the latter category, only making reference to the president when asked about him, and otherwise leaving him out of her messaging, neither praising nor attacking him. Some found it telling that she didn’t mention Trump during her 10-minute speech on Tuesday night, despite the president’s active role in the campaign.

Will Republicans, united around one candidate instead of splintered into 11 camps, manage to pull themselves back into their dominant position in the district? Or will disappointment in Trump from suburban, educated voters, together with a Democratic party energized and confident after Ossoff’s strong first-round showing, help them “flip” the district after all?

For all the spin, bluster and noise, no one will know for certain until June 20, when all three special elections will be placed under a microscope to try to determine whether the turbulent Trump presidency has truly shaken up American politics, or whether it remains partisan business as usual.  

Like Georgia, the first test – in Kansas on April 4 – also reflected increased Republican weakness in the Trump era. Republican candidate Ron Estes was victorious over Democrat James Thompson by only seven percentage points, in a district where the GOP normally dominates by a far wider margin. That seat was also vacated by a Trump appointee, Representative Mike Pompeo, who left to head the CIA.

The third test will be California’s special election runoff on June 6, taking place after no candidate was able to cross the 50 percent threshold in the first round, also on April 4. Though the party winner is already a given in the heavily blue 34th District – both candidates are Democrats – turnout and enthusiasm will be scrutinized to see whether the Democrats can turn the lemon of a Trump presidency into congressional electoral lemonade in 2018.