Learning the right lesson from Georgia cliffhanger
There was a lot on his plate this week, but President Trump managed to keep a close eye on that special election for an open House seat in Georgia. He actively tweeted on the race, criticizing leading Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old filmmaker and onetime Hill staffer, even as outside Democratic and Republican groups poured millions of dollars into the race.
While Mr. Ossoff failed to clear the 50 percent threshold and avoid a runoff, he created a sense of panic within the GOP that he represents a new wave of anti-Trump candidates for energized Democrats looking to score big gains in the 2018 midterms. Mr. Ossoff seems in a strong position, getting over 48 percent of the vote in a crowded field.
But not so fast — voters also picked Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, who is by far the best Republican candidate for the district, to face Mr. Ossoff in the June runoff.
Following election night, Mr. Trump tweeted out that “Dems failed in [last week’s Kansas special election] and are failing in Georgia. … It is now Hollywood vs. Georgia on June 20th.”
Several factors played to the Democrats’ favor in Tuesday’s vote.
First, 11 Republican candidates ran in the primary. (You would think Republicans would have learned their lesson by now about having too many candidates after watching the messy presidential primary process last year.) Eleven candidates against a solid Democrat pick, one who is receiving tons of outside money, presented a tremendous advantage to Mr. Ossoff. Add to that the mainstream media’s obsession with any new shiny object that represents anything anti-Trump, and Mr. Ossoff was practically coronated as the new face of the Democratic resistance before the first vote was cast.
The Georgia district, formerly held by current Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, is changing. It’s an Atlanta suburb with high incomes and high education levels, growing more diverse with increasing numbers of Hispanics and Asians moving in. While Mr. Price was popular in the district, the district no longer rates as safe Republican territory. Mr. Trump won the district by only 1 percentage point over Hillary Clinton in November.
Senator Lindsey Graham said this week that the race was a warning to the GOP: “The South is changing. … I like our chances in a runoff, but we need to wake up as a party. There’s districts like this all over the country that are getting much more moderate.”
The district may be transitioning, but I disagree with Mr. Graham’s prescription. There is no need for Republican candidates to temper their conservatism, as he suggested. Mr. Price was no moderate. In fact, he is a social conservative who focused on issues such as economic growth and health care, which are critically important to the voters. According to a former Republican county chairman in Georgia, the GOP needs to broaden its target audience and sell its economic agenda of innovation and investment in local communities in a way that holds appeal for the growing minority populations.
Ms. Handel nicely fits the Tom Price model of focusing on economic development. She does not need to compromise her conservative principles to attract voters.
As a former president and CEO of the Fulton County Chamber of Commerce, Ms. Handel has the right economic experience and insight for this district and could strongly appeal to suburban women. Mr. Ossoff, as Mr. Trump rightly pointed out, is connected to extreme national liberal groups and part of the Hollywood elite who do not represent the district.
The anti-Trump message may not be strong enough for the Democrats to claim victory in June. While the Democrats are hoping to send a message, voters appear poised to send Karen Handel to Congress.