Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff are headed to a June 20 runoff election for the 6th Congressional District seat in a race that gained national attention for a majority-GOP region nearly turning blue.
For locals, the idea of the Perimeter turning purple is a familiar political theme.
Last fall, state Senators Hunter Hill (R-Smyrna) and Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) won surprisingly close races against little-known Democratic challengers. And in 2015, Democrat Taylor Bennett had a surprising win in Brookhaven/Sandy Springs’ House District 80, though he lost the seat last year by a slim margin to Republican Meagan Hanson.
Joseph Knippenberg, a professor of politics at Oglethorpe University, said Ossoff was “running the Taylor Bennett campaign on a wider scale, and Republicans would do well to remember what happened in that district.”
But for now, Knippenberg said, the region still is typically a safe place for a “generic Republican with name recognition,” and Handel fits that bill.
According to the Secretary of State’s Office, Ossoff won 48.12 percent of the vote (92,673 votes) and Handel won 19.77 percent (38,071).
For Ossoff, a virtual unknown who doesn’t even live in the district — an unusual situation allowed by the U.S. Constitution — the vote totals came amid national media attention and party support as he presented the race as a referendum on President Donald Trump.
Handel emerged from a huge field of Republicans as the experienced contender. The Roswell resident is a former Georgia secretary of state and Fulton County chair, though she has failed in runs for governor and U.S. Senate. Trump support, or lack thereof, was something of a litmus test among GOP candidates, too, as they sniped at each other with negative ads.
The president himself weighed in on the race several times via his favorite medium, Twitter, including after the race was called a runoff.
“Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG ‘R’ win with runoff in Georgia,” Trump tweeted. “Glad to be of help!”
Knippenberg said the president, with his penchant for unpredictable statements and surprise policies, will remain an X-factor in the race and could sway it either way. “A lot can happen in two months,” he said.
Another factor, Knippenberg said, is the “enthusiasm gap” between complacent or uncertain Republicans and energized Democrats who recently formed such grassroots groups as Dunwoody’s Perimeter Progressives.
“The challenge for Republicans is to gin up the enthusiasm, and Ossoff’s challenge is to sustain it,” he said.
The campaign is already notable for enormous amounts of advertising, with Ossoff alone spending more than $6 million. Knippenberg, who lives in the district and received his share of mailers and “robocalls,” said the ad money will only increase for both sides. That sort of spending in itself can turn off voters, he said.
“I think there’s a risk both campaigns run that they’ll drive people screaming from the room,” he said.
Election Night parties
Ossoff held his Election Night party at Dunwoody’s Crowne Plaza hotel in the Ravinia complex. Among the local attendees was Perimeter Progressives founder Joe Seconder.
At her party in Roswell, Handel drew such supporters as Dunwoody City Councilmember Terry Nall and Brookhaven City Councilmember Joe Gebbia. Coincidentally, Handel celebrated her birthday on Election Day and the usual campaign night amenities were joined by a birthday cake.
Ossoff’s party had a rock-concert atmosphere. The hotel ballroom was packed with hundreds of supporters and cars lined the narrow roads at the complex.
DuBose Porter, chair of the Georgia Democratic Party, led the raucous crowd into a loud chant of “Flip the 6th!” — a campaign slogan about bringing Democratic representation to the majority-Republican district.
Seconder said, “I found out I’m not the only Democrat in Dunwoody” as he waved at the crowd in the ballroom.
“I thought it was wildly crazy to think Ossoff would win outright,” Seconder said. But he said that Ossoff can win the runoff and live up to the national attention. “Even though the seat doesn’t change the vote in Congress, it damn well changes the perception to the American public,” Seconder said.
Eileen Esworthy of Sandy Springs brought her son, Evan, 15, to the party, she said, to show him that local politics matters. “Our local community has a say in what happens nationally,” she said.
Esworthy actively volunteered for Ossoff and campaigned for him — something she’s never done before for a candidate.
“I’m very unhappy with the direction our country is going,” she said. “I feel disenfranchised by the presidential administration.”
Eric Singh of Sandy Springs and Scott Henderson of Roswell are friends who volunteered for Ossoff in what they said was their first campaign work. “Before I thought it wasn’t worth it,” Singh said. “Now it is.”
Handel’s party at the DoubleTree Hotel on Holcomb Bridge Road in Roswell drew about 100 people. A birthday cake was brought out early in the evening and the crowd sang “Happy Birthday.” Handel held up a strand of pearls that were with the cake, a birthday decoration that was a nod to her signature accessory.
“I have the greatest gift ever, and this is all of you in this room,” Handel said in brief comments to the crowd.
Dunwoody Councilmember Nall said Handel would represent the area well and likes her campaign’s “energy.”
“It was a very hard-fought race, but the energy is very high and support is very strong,” Nall said, adding that he believes Handel “would be good for both DeKalb County and Dunwoody.”
Longtime Dunwoody residents Bev and Windy Wingate were among Handel’s supporters. “Having known her for many years and supported her in the past, I have nothing but high hopes,” Bev Wingate said. “She’s a workhorse, not a showhorse.”
Also attending were Jim and Laura Strange of Dunwoody.
“She’s a very solid person and we really respected her as secretary of state. … And she’s local, she lives in the district,” Jim Strange said.
Laura Strange said Handel has the combined experience of business savvy and political savvy that other Republican candidates didn’t.
–John Ruch and Dyana Bagby