ROSWELL, Georgia ― Democrat Jon Ossoff finished with 48.1 percent of the vote in the closely watched congressional primary here, leaving Ossoff just shy of the 50 percent he needed to win outright and avoid a June 20 runoff with the top Republican, perennial candidate Karen Handel.
“Bring it on,” Ossoff told the crowd at his election night gathering here in Georgia late on Tuesday night, in a speech in which he seemed to be intentionally impersonating former President Barack Obama.
If Republicans beat Ossoff for the 6th District seat in June, it’ll be thanks to people like Charlene Weir. Weir, 49, said outside her Roswell polling station that she has voted in every election since she turned 18. Republicans, indeed, turn out for special elections and midterms at far higher rates than Democrats.
And every time she has come out, she has voted for a Republican, she said, save for one exception: the Dixiecrat Zell Miller. Weir was no big fan of Ossoff. “I don’t like him. He comes across as unlikable,” she said.
Ossoff, a former documentary filmmaker and congressional aide to Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson, will face off against Handel, who was fired from Susan G. Komen for the Cure after she sparked a PR crisis by pushing her anti-abortion agenda onto the cancer research organization. She has since lost bids to be governor and to be a U.S. senator.
The Georgia race comes a week after a stunningly close contest in Wichita, Kansas, which Democrat James Thompson lost by 7 percentage points, a 20-point swing from November. In May, populist banjo legend Rob Quist faces off in Montana in another special against Republican Greg Gianforte. Both Thompson and Quist endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Democratic presidential primary, and elements of the left coalition suspect a lack of establishment support in those races is connected to that. Ossoff, a clean-cut 30-year-old running a fairly standard-issue campaign, seems more amenable to establishment Democrats.
But the theory that establishment Democrats ignored two races but poured money into a third has a major problem: They ignored Ossoff, too, at first. When national Democrats first looked at the suburban Atlanta race, precipitated by the nomination of former Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) to be health and human services secretary, the number-crunchers in Washington weren’t sure a Democrat would even emerge from the “jungle primary” in April ― let alone that they’d be eyeing a possible victory.
The party largely stayed away at first, but grassroots donors, fueled by Daily Kos and “The Rachel Maddow Show,” poured millions into the race. National Democrats who worried about the race becoming “nationalized” could no longer use that as a rationale to stay away, and the quiet help the party had been providing Ossoff became much more public.
Still, he didn’t need much help with fundraising once his race became the one activists around the country were following, and he has raised more than $8 million so far, most of it in small increments from donors around the country. Candidates get more favorable ad rates on TV than super PACs and other committees do, so there is little reason for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to spend money on the air. (That hasn’t stopped it from blasting its donors with subject lines like “MASSIVE loss,” trying to tap into some of the anxiety about the possibility of a loss.)
With Ossoff’s race likely moving to a runoff in June, that may make room for activist attention to turn to Montana, and perhaps a special election in South Carolina to replace Mick Mulvaney, who became director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Earlier in April, Sanders told The Huffington Post he was willing to travel to Montana and campaign for Quist if Quist was amenable to it. On Monday, Quist and Sanders jointly announced he would indeed be heading out to Big Sky Country. Sanders’ intervention may prod the national party to get involved, and will almost certainly open the spigot of small-dollar support from his organization Our Revolution. That group, founded in the wake of his presidential campaign, had endorsed Thompson in Kansas, but did precious little in the way of fundraising for him.
At the East Roswell Public Library on Tuesday, in a predominantly Republican area, voters trickled out, more often than not telling HuffPost they had been turned away and told they were at the wrong polling place, even though they had just voted here in November. Reports came in from around the district of confusion at polling places, some of it sparked by the fact that some counties are split between several congressional districts, so not everyone in the same county was able to vote in the primary ― even though they’ve had to suffer through an endless loop of campaign commercials.
Hostility was on ample display. At a confluence of two polling precincts in east Cobb County, Ossoff supporter Holly Simmel had her umbrella and chair set up by 6:30 in the morning. Friends showed up shortly after and camped on the opposite side of the road. Then came a backer of Bob Gray, a self-styled Trump Republican, who began arguing with Simmel. He had fairly basic points to make, she recalled, among them that Democrats are not real Americans. When she asked him to be quiet, he called her a “snowflake” ― typically a term reserved for Twitter and YouTube comment sections, referring to the delicate nature of one’s political opponent.
“Your friend is sitting on my church’s lawn,” she said, before walking across the street to the Mount Bethel United Methodist Church, where voting was taking place. Shortly thereafter, the sprinkler began watering a group of Ossoff sign-wavers. Luisa Wakeman, Simmel’s friend, was among those getting drenched, and told HuffPost that a church official later came out and admitted to her he turned the sprinklers on to get them off his lawn. She reasoned that he shouldn’t volunteer to the church to be a voting precinct if he didn’t want rival voters showing up, but, in his defense, there hasn’t been a competitive congressional election in the district for decades.
Georgia’s 6th District has been held by Republicans easily since the 1970s, and was the longtime base of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Trump tweeted incessantly about the race in the 24 hours before the race Tuesday, arguing more or less that Ossoff is pro-crime. While Trump only carried the district by less than 2 points, Tom Price won it by 24. In 1999, a special election to replace Gingrich was held, and the Democrat pulled less than 5 percent.
Joe Webb, 70, standing outside the church Tuesday with his Bob Gray sign, an American flag and a U.S. Marines flag, said he’s been standing there all day for three weeks, since early voting began ― an extraordinary assertion, but one confirmed by several Ossoff supporters, who said his familiar red hat and ponytail have indeed been there that long. “We’re not angry, we’re persistent,” Webb said. If Gray doesn’t get out of the primary, he said, he would happily support Handel.
The same was true of other Republicans HuffPost spoke to. Jake McQueen, 58, a computer consultant, was one of them. “The candidate is important, but the party is more important,” he explained.
Dr. Larisa Pearlman, an OB-GYN who lives in the district, is reflective of the amount of energy on display. Pearlman, 48, worked a 24-hour shift on Friday, and immediately hit the pavement Saturday for Ossoff.
From Sunday morning until deep into Monday, Pearlman was back at work again, another 24-plus-hour shift. She sounded groggy but determined in an interview just as her shift ended, and said she wouldn’t be resting until her work for Ossoff was done. There would be no nap before afternoon canvassing; she had to help her son with a paper first.
“I’ve never been more politically motivated in my whole life,” said Pearlman, a Democrat. She said her sons “have both been very tolerant of my activity, so to speak.”
On Tuesday, she was outside the public library, waving a sign for Ossoff.
The display of liberal force in suburban Atlanta is something new on the American political scene. The left’s reaction to the election of President Donald Trump was not preordained. Malaise, infighting and disengagement were a real possibility. But if the outcome in Georgia Tuesday night began somewhere, it was in towns and cities across the country the day after the inauguration, when some 5 million people organically took to the streets in the Women’s March, sending a clear message that resistance was ahead.
Trump, it can fairly be said, does not respond well to criticism. He spent the next several weeks lashing out about crowd sizes, voter fraud and the Electoral College in an effort to legitimize his authority in the face of outpouring of opposition.
When he launched a ban on travelers from Muslim countries late on a Friday night, the American people did the unthinkable: went to the airport when they didn’t have to. Those protests were followed by countless small acts of resistance at congressional and Senate offices around the country. Facing extraordinary grassroots opposition at home, moderate Republicans bucked the president and refused to go along with his repeal-and-replace of the Affordable Care Act. Trump, disengaged from the process and unfamiliar with the basic workings of government, was told that, in fact, the Freedom Caucus, a group of right-wing House members, had sunk him.
National Democrats are often concerned that competing in elections and failing can be deflating for activists, and can turn the “narrative” against the party. But Jen Cox, a co-founder of the local group Pave It Blue, which launched after the election, said that what Trump has uncorked, can’t be put back in a bottle even if Ossoff loses.
“The train has left the station, we couldn’t be happier, we’re just getting started,” she said. She explained it’s been liberating to realize other liberals live in the area and to create a new community. “When they’re talking today about this being a red district, always has been, always will be, I don’t think that’s true. We’re showing today that regardless of what happens tonight, we have narrowed that gap so much that they are shaking in their boots. Jon gave us this opportunity ― right place, right time ― and as soon as Jon gets elected we will move on to the next candidate that needs help flipping a red district. We will teach women how to get involved in politics, demystify the process of running for a position.”
If Ossoff goes down, “I don’t think it is going to negatively affect it, that is truly my honest answer. This is a channel for us to do something with the concern and angst we felt on November 9. There’s no unringing that bell.”
This article has been updated to reflect incoming election results for Georgia’s 6th District.