“The Cart Before the Horse,” or How Too Much Money Prevented a Democratic Victory in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District

08/22/2017 11:33 am ET Updated Aug 23, 2017

(guest post by Richard Keatley)

Now that the dust has settled, it’s time for Democrats to analyze what went wrong in the recent effort to turn the Sixth Congressional District “blue.”

On the one hand, some cite Jon Ossoff’s performance of 48.1% to 51.9% as a historic, if not a miraculous, turnaround of a GOP bastion where previous election results suggest a 60/40 Republican advantage. Talk of a statewide “Ossoff effect” is also a positive sign, as numerous Democrats throw their hats into rings traditionally reserved for the GOP. These observations fail, however, to consider two important factors that contributed to the close-but-no-cigar race that received national media attention: Democratic disengagement in a changing district and the distracting emphasis of money.

The changing Sixth

Most analyses of the recent election cite statistics from days gone by without recalling how the boundaries of the Sixth District have changed over the years. Today’s Sixth is far more urban and closer to Atlanta than the Western and North Georgian district where Newt Gingrich first ousted old school Dixiecrats in a distant 1979. The Sixth District came closer to the city in 2001 and especially after the 2010 census, when the upper reaches of Cherokee County were " target="_blank">replaced by the “just outside the Perimeter” (JOTP) areas of East Cobb, North Fulton and North Dekalb Counties. The most important addition to this district was Democratic-leaning North Dekalb, whose growing international population contributed to the growth that gave Georgia its additional Congressman. So, even as Atlanta has grown outwards, transforming tracts of farmland into suburban sub-divisions, the Sixth District was moved closer to Atlanta.

Jonathan Cox, Emily Merwin and Saurabh Datar

Despite these changes, Democratic (and Republican) politics continued as if the Sixth were a Democrats-need-not-apply district. While Jeff Kazanow wrested 36% of the vote from Tom Price in 2012, Democrats seemed ready to concede the more urban JOTP district in subsequent elections. Democratic performance dropped to 34% in 2014, while 2016 will be forever remembered as the year the Democrat (who ran unopposed in that year’s primary), raised no money and had no web site. Despite not campaigning, however, the “ghost candidate,” Rodney Stooksbury, still garnished 38% of the vote.

So, while the Ossoff campaign’s ability to raise money and bring the Sixth district to within striking distance is important, it is also true that Democrats had not been showing up. This year’s election shows that the North Atlanta suburbs are increasingly up for grabs, but also demands answers to the question of why $23 million was not enough to flip the Sixth.

The fund-spending machine

Political consultants will tell you that fundraising is an essential part of a successful campaign. Surprising to me, in my experience running in the April Special Election, was that professional politicians and members of Democratic “insiders’ baseball” seemed to consider this factor above all others. “How much money do you have?” “How much can you raise?” were the primary considerations of a candidate’s viability. As an academic and veteran (i.e., someone who has never pursued an objective because of the money involved), I was both surprised and offended. Life experience, ideals, political agenda, conviction and commitment to the American dream seemed to matter little before the grasping, tentacled reach of mammon. This remains, for me, the most disturbing aspect of our political system, one that must be fought at all levels if we are to continue to thrive as a democratic nation with a capitalistic economic system. As Democrats and Americans, we must not confuse the means with the end.

Needles in a Haystack Forum for Democratic Candidates for Georgia’s 6th District in Roswell, Georgia, 2017. L to R. Jon Ossof
Photograph by Doug Bremner
Needles in a Haystack Forum for Democratic Candidates for Georgia’s 6th District in Roswell, Georgia, 2017. L to R. Jon Ossoff, Ragan Edwards, Ron Slotin (partially obscured), Richard Keatley, Rebecca Quigg (partially obscured).

More important than my feelings, however, is the resultant top-down approach that such a mindset has foisted upon good-intentioned political candidates. Mandated in part by the Citizens’ United decision, the “we got cash” culture creates a vortex in which candidates are chosen on the basis of money to the point that generating and spending money becomes an end in itself. This approach benefits consultants, printers, TV stations and digital media, while hurting the democratic process and the ultimate viability of Democratic candidates, giving us the largest Republican majorities since 1928.

In Mr. Ossoff’s case, the glut of cash resulted in media overkill, diluting his centrist message of economic development and reaching across the aisle. The need to come out early and often with claims of record funding thus allowed him to crush his Democratic competitors and prepare for the eventual war with Karen Handel and unlimited super PAC money, but these records also allowed Republicans to brand him as a Nancy Pelosi surrogate with scant ties to the district. The conspicuous abundance of cash, in other words, fed the growing impression that the Democratic candidate had been chosen from above, as national contributions weakened his assertions of running a “grass-roots” campaign.

The most important consequence of a money-first approach is, however, the pernicious effect it has on the democratic process itself. Early on in the election, a barrage of letters and emails were organized asking Ossoff’s Democratic competitors to drop out of the race for the good of the party. The theory was that their concession would give Ossoff a 50% majority in the Special Election, eliminating the need to compete with Republicans at all. In this context, “splitting the vote” (i.e., participating in the democratic process) was seen as an act of treason. The result, as we saw, was that Ossoff did not have to compete against other Democrats. While no splitting occurred, Ossoff still did not get the needed 50%, meaning an unchallenged Democrat went into the ring against a Republican who had competed with experienced politicians to gain her spot in the runoff.

What would have happened if residents of the Sixth District had demanded policy debates between the various Democratic contenders rather than party loyalty and cohesion? What if the Democratic contenders had squared off? One possible result would have been that, rather than coming close in the first round, Ossoff may have lost a portion of his 48.5% to another Democrat. The resultant split could have even been great enough to produce the surprising result of having two Democrats in the June runoff (Handel having received a mere 19.8% in the contentious Republican competition). A more likely scenario is that whoever came out on top would have been better prepared to face their Republican contender.

Ossoff’s fundraising and recruitment of record numbers of local volunteers to “turn the sixth Blue” are indeed a positive and commendable step toward creating a competitive election cycle in Georgia’s Sixth District. There were more yard signs and enough Democratic enthusiasm to suggest that the district may “turn blue” very soon. Winning the district will depend, however, on how we build on this momentum and, especially, the priorities we use to assess future candidates. Waiting for the Trump administration to implode is not a winning strategy. Nor is giving precedence to the candidates with the largest wallets.

In the end, I believe that Jon Ossoff lost, not “in spite of” his $23 million, but, at least in part, because of having too much money.

[Richard Keatley was a Democratic candidate in Georgia’s 6th District Special Election “jungle primary” in 2017.]

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