Vulnerability and Victory in the Georgia Sixth
As election results rolled in on the night of November 6th, many races were too close to offer a clear result. Over a week after election day, eight House, two Senate, and two Governor’s races remain uncalled. But on the Thursday following the election, one key House race was called for Democrat Lucy McBath over incumbent Rep. Karen Handel in GA-06.
Do the Georgia Sixth or Karen Handel sound familiar? If so, it’s likely because of the special election in GA-06 last year between Republican Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff. The special election quickly became the most expensive House contest in US history, in a district that Donald Trump barely won but that his former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, carried handily in 2016. Despite the wave of anti-Trump sentiment building in suburban districts like GA-06, Ossoff lost to Handel by nearly four percentage points. On November 6th, Lucy McBath did what Jon Ossoff could not: she prevailed by one percentage point. While some believe that McBath’s win was just a backlash to over another year of Donald Trump alienating suburban women, I believe that there was a fundamental difference between Ossoff and McBath that allowed her to prevail where he could not.
When the Democratic Party looked to recruit their top candidate for the GA-06 special election, they gravitated toward a young white man. I expect that they thought that as a white man, Ossoff could better connect with the district who had Tom Price as their representative. Instead of Price, or Newt Gingrich, who represented the district a long time ago, Ossoff offered a younger, fresher, and inspirational vision — but in the same package. It seems likely that Democrats didn’t want to force a district that at the time, seemed to be a bellwether of Democratic success or failure in the suburbs, to change too fast. After November 6th’s results, it is clear that the experts were wrong.
Lucy McBath has an inspiring story. It’s a story that many thought would alienate her from a majority-white district that had consistently elected Republicans. In 2012, McBath’s teenage son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed at a gas station by a man angry about the music Davis was playing in his car. The killer was convicted in a 2014 retrial of the case. Out of her grief, McBath became an activist for the gun control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which has emerged as a powerful force to counter the National Rifle Association in terms of spending and electing candidates. The group, along with Giffords (another gun control action group), spent over four million dollars to elect McBath to Congress. Because of her story, gun control rose to the front and center of the campaign. This was contrary to the strategy of the average Democratic candidate, many of whom focused on healthcare and pre-existing conditions. Ossoff was one of those Democratic candidates. By positioning herself so strongly on a more niche issue and with a deeply personal story, McBath formed a bond with voters.
Analysis of the districts that flipped to Democrats has shown that the Democratic Party largely has suburban, college-educated white women to thank for their successful flipping of the House. While these women might be historically Republican voters, it’s an unfortunate myth that they will only vote for a generic, plain Democrat. Rather, they are looking for a reason to be inspired to vote against their typical patterns.
McBath, who connected to many women in the district through talking about the tragedy of losing her son and surviving breast cancer, used her position as a mother and a woman to reach people different from her. McBath’s life story is incredibly unique — and it’s not easy to find candidates with deeply personal life stories who are willing to open up about their lives and accept criticism in the wake of tragedy. However, when it is possible elsewhere, the Democratic Party should seek out and empower candidates with powerful stories. Because when they run, they win.