I was on my way to the Jon Ossoff watch party at a fancy Westin in North Atlanta when I got a call from a good colleague of mine. Somewhere between a black millennial and Gen Xer, he was someone who’d worked on campaigns in Georgia and had a pretty good feel for what was going on throughout Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs.
“That white boy ’bout to lose,” was the first thing he said.
At first I was kind of surprised: Most polls showed the Georgia special election to be close, with Democrat Ossoff performing reasonably well and sometimes even leading Republican Karen Handel. It was the most expensive congressional race in history, and I knew several Republicans who told me privately that Ossoff was going to pull off the upset.
However, with a few days on the ground and knowing the district, I expected Ossoff to lose in a close race, but hearing that sentiment from a campaign insider was unexpected. Yet it became a resounding theme, especially among the African-American political consultants and campaign insiders I spoke to. No matter what happened or how much money was spent, the racial dynamics of Georgia weren’t going to let a Democrat win in a red district.
Democratic armchair quarterbacks were throwing pretzels long before Ossoff’s 48 percent-to-52 percent loss to Handel was called on the cable news networks: The Democratic Party lacks a message; Jon Ossoff spent too much time talking about Trump; Jon Ossoff spent too little time talking about Trump; Jon Ossoff shoulda just kicked the field goal. Everyone seemed to know exactly what Atlanta Democrats should have done.
The truth is, the Republican Party had a 9 percent advantage in voter registration in the Georgia 6th. Hardworking local organizations got more than 129,000 people to early-vote, and more than 50,000 new voters registered between the April primary and the special election in June. But gerrymandering is a serious drug.
The Georgia 6th was drawn in a way to guarantee that a ham sandwich, a wet tablecloth, Team Rocket or a Margo Martindale clone will win any race so long as they have an “R” by their name. There was no “message” from Ossoff on how he was going to turn college-educated Republicans into Democratic special election voters. There is no cheat code to make up a 9 percent registration deficit that either Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton or JFK could have come up with to change the election results. Privately, most Republicans in Atlanta will acknowledge that Ossoff ran about as flawless a campaign as possible, given the circumstances, but he couldn’t overcome the structure of the district.
The Georgia special election demonstrates the limitations of the Democratic Party right now, as well as the weakness of the Republicans even in what are supposed to be safe districts. Republicans just spent $23 million to keep a congressional district that no Democrat has won in 40 years. That’s like McDonald’s spending millions to remind us they still sell hamburgers. If what you’re selling is any good, you shouldn’t have to spend that much to remind us.
However, while some outside the district will second-guess and decry what happened in the race as some larger indictment of the Democratic Party, most African-American consultants on the ground were not surprised. When it came to the Georgia 6th special election, black folks knew that, like Airbnb rates and The Bachelorette, the fix was in.
“White people gonna white.”
“I know my racist neighbors.”
“Ossoff left 10,000 black voters out there.”
In the South—even the “educated” suburban South of a teeming multicultural metropolis like Atlanta—racial dynamics and party dynamics overlap in inescapable ways. White people generally don’t vote for the Democratic Party in Georgia, or any other Southern state. The idea that a coalition of educated suburban whites would actually team up with black voters to send a message to Donald Trump from Georgia was a fantasy created by the blue screen and CGI of outside Democratic analysts who want a happy ending to the Trump narrative in eight months.
Earlier in the week, a middle-aged white woman in a heavily pro-Ossoff precinct called the police on me for simply reporting on a group of African-American canvassers in her neighborhood. Canvassers were threatened and spat on across the 6th District. The Democratic Party’s most reliable base of voters, African Americans remain the primary targets of voter intimidation, suppression and policy abuse, but the Democrats continue to spend millions of dollars chasing after mythical “moderate” Republicans and soccer moms.
This is not to suggest that African-American turnout alone would have won the Georgia 6th for the Democrats, but they spent about $25 million in that race. For that much money, they could’ve gotten one season out of LeBron James, and I’m pretty sure that’s equal to a 20 percent increase in black turnout.
Many consultants told me that the Ossoff campaign left much of the black-turnout work to outside groups and third parties, which is status quo in a regular election, but that’s not the game-changing strategy you need in the most expensive congressional race in American history.
If there’s any doubt about the value of tapping into the Southern black Democratic vote, just look at what happened six hours away in the South Carolina 5th District special election, which nobody was paying any attention to. There, quietly, the Democratic Party spent only $250,000 but tested out some experimental get-out-the-vote strategies for getting out the African-American vote.
Look what happened:
Democrat Archie Parnell lost to Republican Ralph Norman by a mere 4 percentage points, 51 to 47 percent, in a district that went for Trump by 20 percentage points in November. What was the difference? Consistent and creative African-American turnout efforts by the Democratic candidate throughout the entire campaign led to—wait for it—incredible jumps in turnout! Politics can be a simple game when you actually target your own voters instead of someone else’s.
At the end of the night, when all networks had declared that Jon Ossoff lost the Georgia 6th congressional race, the watch-party room was still jubilant. Black, white, Asian, Latino; the room was the epitome of Atlanta in 2017, if not specifically Georgia’s 6th District. People were cheering, dancing and drinking long into the night. I only saw two people crying; everyone else was dancing to suburban hip-hop (lots of Usher and radio-edited T.I.; this is Atlanta, after all).
Apparently they missed the message from national Democrats that they were a bunch of failures. But maybe, just like the black consultants I talked to all throughout the day, the Ossoff revelers knew something that nobody else did. Ossoff’s supporters knew that they had raised millions of dollars and made the GOP sweat in places it never expected. African-American Democrats know that even amid the same old racial cleavages, the “City Too Busy to Hate” had made a smidgen of progress in spite of itself.
All along, people knew “That white boy ’bout to lose,” but at least this time, it looked as if he, and they, went down swinging.