Democrat Outperforms Expectations in Georgia Special Election

Jon Ossoff will compete in a runoff election against Karen Handel, who says she wants to be "a trusted partner" of anti-choice organizations looking to erode access to abortion care.

Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff lists “women’s health care and Planned Parenthood” among his top campaign priorities. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Democrat Jon Ossoff finished a distant first in a special election in Georgia’s 6th district to fill the seat vacated by former congressman Tom Price, now secretary of health and human services in the Trump administration. As of Wednesday morning, Ossoff had secured 48.1 percent of votes in a field that included 18 candidates in what has been a reliably conservative district. 

Ossoff advances to a June 20 runoff election against the top Republican, Karen Handel. Handel, one of 11 Republicans in the race, received less than 20 percent of the votes tallied.

Ossoff came close to securing the 50 percent of votes needed to secure the seat outright in the all-in primary, which pitted candidates from all political parties against each other. Despite falling just short of a majority, Ossoff came out with a higher share of votes than many observers predicted. The results are being lauded as a tangible victory in what the party hopes to be a growing resistance to Republicans under the leadership of President Trump—a good omen for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.

Jim Dean, chair of progressive PAC Democracy for America, called the night “a tremendous victory for those grassroots, resistance leaders” working on the race.

“The mere fact that we’re even talking about a competitive race in a congressional district Democrats haven’t held in over 40 years, let alone Jon Ossoff’s sound victory tonight, is a testament to the growing strength of a nationwide, grassroots movement that’s looking for leaders ready to stand up to the Republicans empowering Donald Trump’s hate-fueled agenda,” Dean said in a press release. Democracy for America endorsed Ossoff in early March.

Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org, declared the night a win. “Jon Ossoff’s first-place finish tonight is a huge triumph for the Resistance and for progressives, who boosted Ossoff to the top of a crowded race in a Republican-leaning district. Less than six months ago, a Republican won this district by more than 20 points,” said Galland, whose group backed Ossoff. “Tonight once again proves that momentum is clearly on the side of the Resistance and that Donald Trump has no mandate for his dangerous, reckless, and hateful policies.”

Deirdre Schifeling, executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said, “Georgians sent a message: they want reproductive health care champions, like Jon Ossoff, in Washington, DC. Women marched to the polls to elect a candidate who will make protecting women’s programs and access to healthcare a top priority.”

Planned Parenthood Action Fund invested in a six-figure campaign supporting Ossoff, according to a press release. That money funded digital ads, a door-to-door ground effort reaching more than 15,000 people, and a mail campaign reaching more than 70,000 people.

Trump tweeted Wednesday that Georgia’s election results were a “BIG ‘R’ win,” and congratulated himself for getting involved in the race. He recorded a robocall attacking Ossoff before the special election.

The state’s primary battle was a hotbed for political spending from outside groups. Analysis from the Center for Public Integrity found that “when the candidates’ own campaign money is excluded, the Georgia 6th special election has attracted about one Georgia penny for every $10 in national cash.”

Ossoff’s campaign site lists “women’s health care and Planned Parenthood” as one of the candidate’s ten priorities.

“Jon will defend women’s access to contraception and a woman’s right to choose and fight any legislation or executive action that would allow insurance companies to discriminate against women,” says the site. “Planned Parenthood provides essential preventative and reproductive health care services like cancer screenings, STD testing and low-cost birth control to millions of American women. Jon will defend Planned Parenthood in Congress.”

The Georgia Democrat supports raising the federal minimum wage and has vowed to “fight tirelessly against discrimination, hate speech, or violence against Americans on the basis of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or place of birth,” according to his campaign site.

Handel, a long-time anti-choice activist who has helped lead attacks on Planned Parenthood, was backed by national anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List). The organization contacted more than 25,000 Georgia voters by mail, according to an April 12 press release. 

SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser called Ossoff an abortion-rights “extremist” who “must be defeated at all costs.”

“Karen Handel isn’t afraid to take on Planned Parenthood,” Dannenfelser said. “While working at the Susan G. Komen Foundation, she was instrumental in exposing the abortion giant’s deception and failure to provide mammograms. “

Handel served as Georgia’s secretary of state and lost both a 2010 gubernatorial bid and a 2014 Republican primary election for U.S. Senate. She resigned as senior vice president of public policy at Susan G. Komen for the Cure in 2012 after the group reversed its decision to cut grants for Planned Parenthood. Though she was reportedly behind the move against the health-care provider, Handel later penned a book alleging the decision was not political.

During a Facebook Live interview with Georgia Life Alliance last week, Handel said she “had an obligation to stand up and be a vocal advocate for the life movement.”

She added that she hoped to be “a trusted partner” of anti-choice groups.