‘A mother on a mis­sion’: How McBath won

Per­sonal story, out­side back­ing, ‘per­fect storm’ at bal­lot box all helped.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Ta­mar Haller­man ta­mar.haller­man@ajc.com

Look at the raw num­bers from Tues­day’s 6th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict race and you’ll see that U.S. Rep. Karen Han­del ac­tu­ally built on the sup­port she re­ceived in last year’s spe­cial elec­tion against Jon Os­soff.

Twenty-one thou­sand more vot­ers in north DeKalb, Ful­ton and east­ern Cobb coun­ties sup- ported the Roswell Re­pub­li­can in the midterms than 17 months ago, when the dis­trict played host to the most ex­pen­sive U.S. House race of all time.

But un­like the June 2017 spe­cial elec­tion, in which Han­del bested Os­soff by 4 per­cent­age points, the for­mer Ge­or­gia sec­re­tary of state came up sev­eral thou­sand votes short against her Demo­cratic op­po­nent. Han­del con­ceded to Lucy McBath, a first-time can­di­date, on Thurs­day morn­ing.

The 6th Dis­trict race was Geor- gia’s most high-pro­file up­set in a year that drew near pres­i­den­tial-level turnout. Un­til a few weeks ago — and even lead­ing into elec­tion night — many po­lit­i­cal hand­i­cap­pers did not list Han­del among the law­mak­ers most in dan­ger of los­ing their seats.

But sky-high turnout sparked by the state’s mar­quee gu­ber­na­to­rial race, sim­mer­ing sub­ur­ban dis­sat­is­fac­tion with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and ma­jor

out­side as­sis­tance from groups linked to mega-donor Michael Bloomberg all helped McBath eke out a win over Han­del, al­lies of the Demo­crat said in in­ter­views this week.

But the McBath cam­paign and its al­lies also at­tribute the Demo­crat’s win to the can­di­date’s pow­er­ful per­sonal story, which they say helped her cut through the po­lit­i­cal noise and con­nect with vot­ers.

“The vot­ers re­sponded to my com­mit­ment to put aside par­ti­san fights for the good of the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” McBath said Wed­nes­day as she de­clared vic­tory over Han­del. “Six years ago, I went from a Ma­ri­etta mom to a mother on a mis­sion.”

The Trump fac­tor

On the stump and in her tele­vi­sion ads, McBath de­scribed how the death of her teenage son sparked her own ac­tivism, lob­by­ing for stricter gun laws as a spokes­woman for the ad­vo­cacy group Every­town for Gun Safety.

McBath also quickly be­gan ty­ing Han­del to the more un­pop­u­lar poli­cies of Trump, in­clud­ing the Oba­macare re­place­ment plan he en­dorsed and the fam­ily sep­a­ra­tions cri­sis that dom­i­nated head­lines this sum­mer.

That put Han­del in a tough spot.

She had care­fully sep­a­rated her­self from many of the pres­i­dent’s most con­tentious poli­cies, in­clud­ing the border sep­a­ra­tions and tar­iffs. But she also couldn’t out­wardly de­nounce the pres­i­dent be­cause he was still wildly pop­u­lar among the GOP base.

Han­del in­stead tried to carve out her own iden­tity sep­a­rate from Trump’s, em­pha­siz­ing her work on the opi­oid cri­sis, tax over­haul and hu­man-traf­fick­ing leg­is­la­tion on Capi­tol Hill.

But that was not enough to sep­a­rate her in the eyes of well-ed­u­cated sub­ur­ban vot­ers turned off by Trump’s slash-and-burn style. They re­jected Repub­li­cans up and down the bal­lot in metro At­lanta, boot­ing not just Han­del but more than a half­dozen GOP in­cum­bents from the state­house.

“The top does mat­ter and it mat­ters tremen­dously,” Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, a for­mer chair­man of the Ge­or­gia GOP, said of Trump. “If you’re in that party, you can’t run from it. ... I’ve got three daugh­ters and a wife and we’ve had some rather heated dis­cus­sions about pol­i­tics over the last few weeks and months, and they mostly cen­tered on frus­tra­tion with the White House.”

Top of the ticket

McBath and other downticket Democrats were also bol­stered by Stacey Abrams. En­thu­si­asm for her his­tory-mak­ing cam­paign for gov­er­nor helped spark Demo­cratic turnout to lev­els seen largely in pres­i­den­tial years, par­tic­u­larly in metro At­lanta, and those can­di­dates were able to ben­e­fit from the Abrams cam­paign’s getout-the-vote ef­forts.

Han­del did not have the same ben­e­fit with Re­pub­li­can gu­ber­na­to­rial nom­i­nee Brian Kemp. Her cam­paign knocked on 30,000 doors, but Kemp’s op­er­a­tion was largely fo­cused on driv­ing up turnout in ru­ral, deeply con­ser­va­tive swaths of the state.

Abrams, mean­while, spoke to kitchen ta­ble is­sues such as Med­ic­aid ex­pan­sion that res­onated with sub­ur­ban vot­ers.

McBath also had her own be­hind-the-scenes help from Democrats that helped her build up her cam­paign in­fra­struc­ture.

Grass-roots groups that emerged fol­low­ing Trump’s elec­tion and can­vassed for Os­soff in 2017 helped do the same for McBath, Abrams and other Demo­cratic can­di­dates. And after McBath se­cured the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion this sum­mer, staff from House Democrats’ cam­paign arm and the po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee Emily’s List helped scale up her cam­paign op­er­a­tion and hone its over­all strat­egy and fundrais­ing plans, ac­cord­ing to a House Demo­cratic strate­gist fa­mil­iar with the ef­fort. They urged McBath to more fre­quently dis­cuss her two bouts with breast can­cer, giv­ing her a per­sonal way to dis­cuss health care and in­sur­ance pro­tec­tions for pre-ex­ist­ing con­di­tions, which be­came a top is­sue in many House races na­tion­wide.

The Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee’s in­volve­ment helped fi­nance McBath’s early ads and gave her le­git­i­macy in the eyes of ma­jor party donors, but McBath also ben­e­fited from thou­sands of smaller cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions — some as small as $5 or $10 — from the Demo­cratic fundrais­ing web­site Ac­tBlue. Repub­li­cans have no com­pa­ra­ble plat­form that con­nects can­di­dates with donors na­tion­wide.

Out­side in­vest­ment

By far the big­gest out­side player in the con­test was the Bloomberg-af­fil­i­ated Ev­ery- town for Gun Safety, the gun con­trol group for which McBath once worked. The or­ga­ni­za­tion plowed more than $4.5 mil­lion into the race, mostly fi­nanc­ing tele­vi­sion ads that helped build up McBath’s name iden­ti­fi­ca­tion ahead of the pri­mary and gen­eral elec­tions while also at­tack­ing Han­del.

“We’ve known Lucy for years now, since her son Jor­dan was killed, and the one thing we know about her is that she is a nat­u­ral leader who has a story to tell,” said John Fein­blatt, the pres­i­dent of Every­town. “It’s a story that res­onated with Ge­or­gia-06 vot­ers.”

While Han­del’s cam­paign slightly out­raised McBath’s, it could not match the out­side sup­port from groups such as Every­town.

The House GOP’s cam­paign arm and other al­lied groups such as the Con­gres­sional Lead­er­ship Fund were fo­cused else­where this year, play­ing de­fense against a Demo­cratic-friendly po­lit­i­cal map in the House. By the time the Na­tional Re­pub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee jumped into the race in mid-Oc­to­ber with $1.4 mil­lion worth of McBath at­tack ads, early vot­ing was well un­der­way.

Os­soff char­ac­ter­ized McBath’s vic­tory and the close race run by Demo­crat Carolyn Bour­deaux in the nearby 7th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict as the fruit of a “per­fect storm” at the bal­lot box.

“Strong can­di­dates like Lucy and Carolyn run­ning strong cam­paigns, Stacey Abrams at the top of the ticket driv­ing his­toric turnout, Trump de­stroy­ing the GOP’s rep­u­ta­tion, dam­aged and in­vis­i­ble in­cum­bents and thou­sands of tire­less pro­gres­sive vol­un­teers,” he said. “It all helped sweep away the GOP’s hold on At­lanta’s sub­urbs.”

McBath might need a sim­i­lar com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors in 2020 to fight off a Re­pub­li­can ef­fort to re­gain the seat.

Lucy McBath

Karen Han­del

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