Photo: Thomas Kelley on Unsplash
Last night, a progressive Democrat almost won a special election for a seat in Congress in a historically conservative part of the ultra-red state of Georgia.
It was a high-stakes race, the most expensive of its kind in history and characterized by the spending of millions of dollars from both campaigns, thick tension within Georgia neighborhoods, and brutal attack ads across the state. For example, I live in the state but outside of the district, and I watched commercials in which the GOP claimed that Jon Ossoff has no experience, supports ISIS terrorists, and wants to weaken the military -- even though he served as a Congressional aide and worked as a documentary filmmaker to expose ISIS’s atrocities against women and girls.
Republican Karen Handel’s team argued that Ossoff doesn’t live in Georgia and therefore doesn’t know how to represent the state. It’s true that he doesn’t live here, but he was born and raised in the 6th district. Ossoff’s team blasted Handel as a “career politician” who bought a personal Lexus with taxpayer dollars, traveled on our dime,
exploded state spending by 42%, and tried to blow $15,000 on office chairs during the recession budget crisis. She did in fact buy the car with state money, but she used it instead of flying and didn’t travel excessively. The budget and chair claims, however, have been verified.
They also claimed that Ossoff lied about his security clearance in Congress. It’s true that Ossoff was unclear; while he said he worked for five years, it may have only been three years with the level of clearance he claimed to have. He likely spent the first two in very low-level positions, though experts say “it’s not a stretch” that he had a high level of real involvement and gained crucial experience during those years.
As ugly as the advertisements got, when Handel and many others in her neighborhood received envelopes stuffed with threatening letters and unidentified white powder, both candidates spoke of unity and civility. The GOP railed against liberals in a reaction that mirrored their response to Kathy Griffin’s depiction of a decapitated Trump head, claiming that liberals celebrate violence against their opposition. The substance was considered “non-hazardous” and there was no evidence that Ossoff supporters sent the letters: they came from Greenville, S.C.
For many across the country, Ossoff brought hope for the future, not fear. He symbolized “the Resistance” moving in on Trump to dismantle a Republican regime even though he tried to represent himself as a moderate, independent voice apart from the traditional liberal mold. Supporters hoped that trend would continue in the 2018 Senate elections, and his loss now represents a heartbreaking, expensive failure to stand up to what some see as oppressive policies.
However, progressives should hold onto that hope. Ossoff only lost to Handel by 3.8 percentage points in a region distinctly colored red since 1979. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a mere 1.5 percentage points. Without a doubt, change is coming to the southeast.
As Ossoff himself said to his supporters, “You have provided a beacon of hope, not just for people in Georgia, but for people around the world. The fight goes on. Hope is still alive.”
Trump’s slight favor in the region likely played a role in the results of this race. The president endorsed Handel and warned supporters against Ossoff, calling him “a disaster.” As a journalist and a liberal who strives for transparency and accountability in government, Ossoff represents everything Trump seems to hate.
Ossoff -- and a hopeful 48.1% of the district -- also believes in women’s right to autonomy over their bodies, a health care plan that would provide insurance for every American, a living wage, and equal pay for equal work. They support improving the public education system and cutting spending that Ossoff repeatedly stated was “out of control” in both parties. Ossoff voters chose a man who stands in stark contrast against the President who so narrowly won over the region and advocated for tax reforms benefitting more than the richest among us and the largest corporations.
As more and more Georgians lean left, a declining majority still stand for the Trump administration. They voted for a woman who supports a health care bill that may deprive millions of care, lower taxes on the rich and big businesses, a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, privatizing the school system, and defunding Planned Parenthood. They voted for someone who said “I do not support a livable wage,” and that this distinction is what makes her "a conservative.”
Ossoff’s loss seems like a death sentence to some progressives’ dreams
of taking back the House and the Senate in the 2018 elections. What
can southern Democrats do, then, to secure their future?
Hopeful candidates should follow Ossoff’s lead in representing themselves as more moderate than other Democrats to avoid alienating voters “in limbo,” those who may hold some conservative values but distance themselves from the president. Both candidates spoke little of Trump during the race to pander to this group, but both could have more effectively set themselves apart from a particular ideology to sway the voters caught in-between.
As Trump’s approval ratings sink ever lower (even among Republicans)
and the GOP starts to realize how the administration disproportionately threatens Trump voters’ own livelihoods, we can only hope that bright, promising leaders like Ossoff will encourage them to put aside their prejudices, step outside of their comfort zones, and embrace change to help our country move in the right direction.
Emily Rose is 17 years old and from Athens, Georgia. Beginning in fall 2017, she will attend Mercer University. She plans to double major in Journalism and Political Science and to minor in Global Development Studies. She is a writer, musician, activist, and feminist who hopes to use her platforms to inspire positive change by providing different perspectives on the world’s political and social issues.