Election 2016, the 2017 Edition
Ever since Donald Trump managed to win the Presidency in 2016, Democrats have been desperate to prove that somehow it didn’t really happen, or it shouldn’t have happened, or maybe it could be un-happened, or at least, by God, it won’t ever happen again. And so, in the form of congressional special elections, campaign 2016 drags on, and on and on. Because the new Trump White House tapped several Republican congressmen to serve in the administration these House seats now need to be filled through a series special elections that have been scheduled throughout the year. The Democrats are fairly fanatic to win one of these seats, snatching it away from the Republicans to embarrass President Trump (as if The Donald even does embarrassed) and prove to themselves and the world that the American electorate hasn’t really gone, to their way of thinking, completely off its rocker. So far, they’re 0-4.
The big story of this last week was the narrow defeat of Democrat John Ossoff in the special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district to replace Republican Tom Price whom President Trump named Secretary of Health and Human Services. Enormous amounts of energy and money and political analysis went into this single race for one of four hundred thirty five seats in congress. The excitement began in April when unknown, under-qualified, thirty-year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff scored 48% of the vote in a field of seventeen candidates of both parties in the ‘jungle primary’. With 50%, Ossoff would have won the seat outright. The Democratic party was so thrilled at the surprise performance, and at the prospect of nabbing a safe Republican congressional seat in Georgia, the party and liberal interest groups from all over the country poured $30 million into Ossoff’s run-off campaign hoping to sting President Trump in a referendum on his administration so far. The Republican opponent was a seasoned fifty-five year old professional Georgia politician, Karen Handel, who, with outrageous spending of her own, managed to win with only a narrow four percent point majority of the vote.
This was treated as a major piece of news with important political ramifications. Democrats, though deflated by defeat, felt vindicated at producing so close a race in a bastion of southern conservatism. However, as thrilling and pivotal as this race was portrayed, there are a number of problems with this narrative.
First, the notion that this was a safe Republican seat. True enough, this district is in suburban Georgia outside of Atlanta and this seat has been held by Republicans since 1979. Still, suburbs have been skewing blue for years. The safeness of this seat was touted mainly because Tom Price had won re-election just last November by a 20% margin. That’s a safe Republican seat, right? Well,… While Tom Price did indeed beat Democrat Rodney Stooksbury by 62% to 38% of the vote, Tom Price was a six term incumbent while Rodney Stooksbury was a complete non-entity. This may be literally true. To say that he has no political experience is to put it mildly. There is, in fact, no definitive proof that Rodney Stooksbury exists. Whoever he is, or might be, he spent zero dollars on his campaign, has never been seen in public, and no photograph of him has yet been found. Reporters who knocked on the door of his purported home found no one in residence and neighbors when asked could not recognize the name or remember ever having met him. He is essentially, if not literally, a mythical person. In other words, the 38% of voters in the Georgia 6th district who voted against Tom Price would have voted for anyone in the world, living, dead or fictional, who was not a Republican. That is a pretty stout opposition base. A six term incumbent winning by 22% over the equivalent of Mickey Mouse does not make the Georgia 6th a safe Republican seat.
Second, why would Jon Ossoff’s 48% of the vote in the ‘jungle primary’ be all that stunning or should have been all that encouraging? It’s true that he came within 2% of winning the seat outright but he was the only Democrat in the race. Naturally the entire Democratic vote was concentrated on him. And he was a pretty extremely bad campaigner, the kind of candidate that gets less interesting the more you get to know him. Despite a $30 million war chest, he never attacked President Trump, he never attacked or much criticized his opponent, and never really stood on any issues. His schizophrenic campaign slogan was “Humble. Kind. Ready to Fight.” Huh? Sixteen Republican candidates split the remaining 52% of the primary vote and in the run off those 52% clearly combined to support Karen Handel. In fact, in this very consistent district, Donald Trump carried 52% of the vote in the November, Republicans collectively carried 52% in the ‘jungle ‘primary’, and Karen Handel won the seat with 52% of the vote. In other words, 52% of this district is Republican. Nothing changed that. Not Donald Trump, not an oddly named fictional candidate, not a jungle primary, not $50 million dollars spent on 250,000 voters (that’s right, $200 for each voter) driving them crazy with five weeks of constant invasive campaigning. Democrats still consider it a rebuke to the Trump administration that they came so close to victory in a ‘safe’ Republican district even though voter turnout was so low that Jon Ossoff actually walked away with fewer votes than Rodney Stooksbury.
Finally, the idea that this election is any more significant than a single seat in congress or that it has anything to say about the midterm elections in 2018 or the presidential election in 2020 is just ridiculous. Generators of political analysis refuse to accept that eighteen months, let alone three and a half years, are an eternity in politics. Elections have to do with moment in time. They’re about what’s been accomplished, what hasn’t, where’ s the economy, war, peace, terrorism and the inevitable October surprise. Can you imagine a congressional special election in June of 2013 leading anyone to the conclusion that Donald Trump would be elected president in 2016? Okay, other than Donald Trump? This election was about the sad state of the Democratic party at this moment in time. If Democrats want to govern, they need to get a grip on reality, learn from their errors, (save their money, for crying out loud!), come up with ideas that resonate and win a whole lot more than one seat in Congress.