Sometimes, politics boils down to narratives.
This was the case in Tuesday’s special election in Georgia, where Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff to take a House seat previously occupied by Tom Price—now the secretary of health and human services.
The election became a nationalized proxy war between Republicans and Democrats, drawing intense news coverage and wild spending from both parties. Georgia’s 6th Congressional District residents were utterly bombarded by an overload of electioneering and ads.
— Mike Warren (@MichaelRWarren) June 19, 2017
After nearly 40 years of Republican control, the district seemed to be up for grabs.
But Ossoff was soundly defeated—despite having led by slight margins in a number of polls. Democrats had hoped to pluck off a surprise win and launch a narrative of victory in a referendum on President Donald Trump. Their hopes were dashed.
Democrats are now 0-4 in special elections against Republicans during the Trump presidency. According to Ballotpedia, Democrats spent just over $25 million in those four elections (Montana, Kansas, South Carolina, Georgia), and according to The New York Times, Ossoff received $7.6 million from outside groups for his campaign. So, a total of at least $32 million.
But both parties put a lot of weight into the Georgia election outcome and waged a ferocious battle to pull out a win.
The result of this political arms race was a little bit like the famed World War I Battle of Verdun between France and Germany.
The tactical value of the piece of land being fought over was marginal, but both sides had committed so much blood and treasure that they were fearful of pulling resources from the fight. Retreat became impossible.
This single House seat would have made little impact on the vote margin of the Republican-dominated House, but Democrats were desperate to demonstrate that their political fortunes were turning in an anti-Trump wave in the vein of the tea party’s surge in 2010.
Though Republicans didn’t quite pull out all the stops in the financial tit for tat, they certainly scrambled to match the Democrats.
The sheer amount of money invested in the race rose to staggering levels, seemingly raising the stakes even further.
Ossoff, who couldn’t vote in the election because he didn’t live in the district, frequently railed on the campaign trail about money in politics and about political action committees in Washington, D.C., dumping money into his opponent’s campaign efforts.
Yet he himself received a massive influx of dollars from the liberal San Francisco Bay Area. In fact, The Mercury News reported that he received three times as many donations from the Bay Area than from Georgia in the two months before the election.
This campaign shattered spending records.
As The Daily Signal’s Rachel del Guidice reported:
The race between Ossoff and Handel is the most expensive House race ever, CBS News reported, with fundraising exceeding $50 million. By the end of May, Handel and Ossoff had spent $3.2 million and $22.5 million, respectively, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, ABC News reported.
To put this in perspective, more money was spent on this single House race than on Jimmy Carter’s 1980 presidential election against Ronald Reagan.
Total individual contributions to another famous GA politician Jimmy Carter in 1980, in 2017 dollars: $34.8M. GA-6 spending: over $50M pic.twitter.com/zU8WeHR9kQ
— Patrick Ruffini (@PatrickRuffini) June 20, 2017
Some outside groups in particular burned through a huge amount of cash to tip the balance in the race, and were in turn burned by the result.
Planned Parenthood, which has tangled with Handel in the past, spent nearly $1 million to boost Ossoff.
Handel had resigned as the vice president of the breast cancer research organization Sarah G. Komen for the Cure over the organization’s ties to Planned Parenthood, and even wrote a book about the experience.
Though Planned Parenthood, as National Review noted, tried to spin the defeat as a moral victory, it wasn’t a good look for an organization that continually pleads for taxpayer funding.
While the stunning levels of spending in the race undoubtedly made it more competitive, the results are a pretty clear example that money isn’t everything in politics, despite Ossoff’s claim that money is such an enormous problem.
Georgia Democrats ultimately couldn’t escape the forces that have caused national Democrats to sputter at the polls in the last few years, and voters clearly weren’t ready to make a dramatic swing just yet.
Many media organizations peddled the narrative that Handel had “avoided a major upset” rather than securing a solid victory, but there is no doubt that the Georgia race’s outcome showed that voters are still not interested in repudiating Trump’s agenda.
Lest Republicans become too jubilant in victory, it is important to note that the party has as yet failed to pass health care and tax reform despite large majorities in Congress. Winning elections amounts to very little without legislative results.
So far, voters have still not punished Republicans at the polls and Democrats apparently can’t even buy victories.
But as elections tighten and Democrats search for a winning message, the GOP would be wise to double down on the promises that gave it such large majorities to begin with.