The Democratic loss in Georgia’s Special Congressional Election — the most expensive in U.S. history — is a sign that the party’s old playbook is failing, says Kamau Franklin, political editor for Atlanta Black Star
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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Republican Karen Handel has defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff in the special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Democrats were hoping a backlash against Donald Trump and the Republican healthcare bill would help them flip a Republican stronghold, and they poured in lots of money to do it making this the most expensive House race in history. Ossoff also tried to appeal to the right coming out against progressive bedrocks like higher taxes on the wealthy and single-payer healthcare, but in the end it didn’t work leaving Democrats with yet another loss in the Trump era. Joining me from Georgia is Kamau Franklin, political editor for Atlanta Black Star. Kamau, welcome. KAMAU FRANKLIN: Thanks for having me. AARON MATÉ: This race, as I said, was expensive, about $55 million in total. Most of that, I believe, came from Democrats who poured a lot of money and time into this race. So what happened? KAMAU FRANKLIN: I think there’s several factors. One is that I think Democrats poured a lot of hope into this Congressional District when I think if they were a little bit more savvy and realistic, they could’ve saw that maybe it just wasn’t time for this race to flip, well, this seat, this district to flip. This district still demographically represents a large proportion of White, conservative voters. About 72% of this district is White. About 34% of it is made up of minorities — Black, Asian, and Latino. I think there’s been some hope because of the closeness of some of the previous election results, particularly federal election results, but I think one is that this district, as much as folks are getting [inaudible 00:01:50] wanted to, may not just be ready to flip. But in the near future, two, four, six years from now, it may be something that can flip. I think on the other hand also, you have Ossoff who really, although a lot of money was spent, we don’t have record levels of turnout for this election. In fact, during the 2016 election, we had probably close to over 300,000 voters who came out in this district. This time around, we’re probably going to reach about 250,000. So a good amount for a special election, of course, but it wasn’t as if the sort of fires were lit under the Democratic base, I guess, to come out and support in a large number. Thirdly, I think that some of that leads to Ossoff’s sort of middle ground positions where, again, Democrats get themselves in this position of trying to think that they’re going to be able to shift voters who traditionally have voted right of center, thinking they’re going to shift them over to the left or shift them to the middle by being really average at best on progressive causes and issues. I think Ossoff again tilted that way, and I think all of that is part of the reason why they paid the price in losing by a slightly larger number than I think they actually expected. AARON MATÉ: Yeah, Kamau. Hearing that, I wonder about the national implications here. Even if it was the correct strategy to go to the right for Ossoff, to try to appeal to moderate voters in this specific district, the energy that you talk about that the national Democrats poured into this race says to me that that’s still where they’re putting their chips, that they still think that on a national level perhaps, this Clinton-type model of trying to appeal to the center or the right is going to work. KAMAU FRANKLIN: Yeah. I think the Democrats are going to be engaged in a new civil war between whatever their progressive wing wants and between what the Clinton wing, which is still dominant in the Democratic Party. Let’s not fool ourselves in thinking that just because there is sort of an ascension of Bernie Sanders supporters, Sanders is one of the most popular, if not the most popular elected official in the country today, it still does not mean that that’s pulled the whole party, particularly the party leadership over with him. In fact, I think that internal war is happening now. The money that’s being spent on the type of candidates, though, shows that that war is still being won by Clinton-type supporters and, to a large degree, Obama-type supporters who really want to play a middle ground strategy and think they’re going to still be able to pull right-wing voters over to their side. I think, again, this is another indication that that strategy is just wrong, that if you’re going to go down losing, you go down losing with policies and ideas that you believe in, that you don’t become wishy-washy, particularly towards the end of these races because if you do, it deflates your base. It deflates the possible folks who would come out and make this some record-level voting numbers cast that shows that, look, there is an onslaught of support for the Democratic Party, for a party that shifts left. Instead, what they have is something that they’re going to have to go back again, lick their wounds, talk about why they lost, and not be in a position to come out with some energy heading into 2018. AARON MATÉ: Yeah. There have been multiple special elections this year since Trump took office and still no victories for Democrats. In terms of Ossoff, what did he do wrong? Where was he wishy-washy in this campaign? KAMAU FRANKLIN: I think there was several opportunities for him to come out and be strongly progressive. One of the easier ones for him was to talk more about healthcare, more about single-payer, more about making sure that everybody was covered in healthcare. Instead, he took a tack to the right again, to the middle talking a lot about also working across the aisle with all members. That sort of wishy-washy language, it really doesn’t mean anything. That doesn’t get anybody excited, but that he thinks because the Democratic Party has trained folks to think that if you say you’re going to work with someone across the aisle that somehow that means votes. But the Republicans have shown over and over again that just the opposite strategy works with their base, that their appeal to the things that they think their base wants, needs, desires, and that’s what pulls out votes for them. I think the Democrats continually shift away from the passionate issues that their base cares about. Shaking hands with Republicans in Congress is not something that the loyal base of the party really cares about. They care about issues that are healthcare, jobs. They don’t care if you’re going to say you’re going to work across the aisle. AARON MATÉ: Yeah. And so much of politics seems focused on trying to rally people who are already partisan on your side or those who couldn’t possibly be flipped. Not much thought given to mobilize those who don’t vote at all, which is a huge segment of the population, and trying to reach them. That could maybe be done through the policy measures that you’re talking about. Let’s talk about Handel a little bit. She was Secretary of State of Georgia and heavily involved, as I understand, in supporting tactics that have been accused of suppressing the vote. KAMAU FRANKLIN: Yeah. Handel is a classic right wing politician. She’s known in Georgia for doing exactly what you said, trying to help suppress the vote and not extend voting rights. She follows closely the national Republican line on voter ID laws. She was infamous as the Secretary of State as someone who was trying to pass policies that did just that, that tried so slow down the amount of Black and Latino folks who were able to vote, who tried to cut voter rolls. So I think she’s somebody who is well-known in terms of the type of policies that she believes in and enacts, and I think her base was more committed to her policies and to her ideas than the Democratic base was to someone who was, relatively speaking, an unknown who spoke more about what he would do in terms of the middle ground. AARON MATÉ: There is one further Georgia race that Democrats are hoping will go blue, and that’s the race for governor. Democrat state lawmaker Stacey Abrams is running in that contest. She just kicked off her campaign for governor. It’s been said that she’s united both wings of the party, of the Democratic Party that we’ve talked about, the sort of Bernie Sanders progressive wing and the centrist Clinton Wing. Kamau, can you talk about that race and what her chances are there? KAMAU FRANKLIN: I think she still has an uphill battle because of what we spoke about earlier in terms of demographics. I think, again, Georgia is shifting purple, potentially blue at some point in the future. But I think it’s unfortunately too early to think that there’s parity amongst voters or that the electorate has already shifted over based on demographic changes mostly to a Democratic state. So I think it’s going to be uphill in that way. I think Stacey Abrams can bring out a certain amount of support from the base because of some of her policies, but I also think she has an alternative history, which his also deal making with the current Republican governor. I think that deal making is something, particularly when it comes to the primary, depending on who else is running, that there possibly could be a candidate to the left to challenge some of her policies and some of her views. So I don’t think she’s someone who’s a sort of a shoo-in depending on who else may be running. You also have Jason Carter who may run again. You might have a couple of other candidates who have a little bit of money. You also may get a surprise and have the current mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, jump in and run. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a shoo-in that she will be the Democratic choice or pick, but I think that it’s probably still depending on her also getting a lot of outside money and inside money, that she’s probably the favorite, at least for the Democratic primary, and she still will have somewhat of an uphill battle this upcoming election season in terms of winning the governorship, but she may bring out more people who haven’t voted for a while, so it may be close. AARON MATÉ: Finally, Kamau, just talking about where grassroots progressive politics in Georgia goes from here in the aftermath of this special election. I remember a few years ago when Ben Jealous was at the NAACP, he put out a report basically calling for a new Freedom Summer, one that would seek to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people of color in states like Georgia, to turn them away from Republicans. I’m wondering what you think right now of the state of ideas like that in Georgia, whether you’re seeing an effort to involve more people in politics, and overall, your thoughts on where you want to see the political conversation go in the aftermath of this loss for Democrats tonight in Georgia. KAMAU FRANKLIN: I think there are some holes, unfortunately, in Jealous’ approach. The biggest one is that the resources haven’t been committed to Georgia, which is not his fault of course, to even experiment with that policy of bringing out voters who currently or in the past have not voted, ones who may have just gotten their voting rights back. I think that’s something that maybe the Democratic Party needs to look at. But again, I still think it’s going to be a few years of shifting. I think the other thing is that the Democrats will have to do a better job of putting together candidates that can speak to the base in a way that excites the base. I still think that the Democratic Party here in Georgia likes to have this sort of moderate, inside, corporate-type candidates. They think that they play well nationally for people who have further career moves that they want to make later. So you don’t get a lot of candidates in Georgia who are really progressive. You have one right now who’s running for mayor, his name is Vincent Fort, who is really tacked to the left, has a supporter of Bernie Sanders, is gaining some traction and some excitement around those ideas, which are similar to Sanders. In fact, broke away from the Clinton camp and supported Sanders during the primary in the Democratic Party. So I think when you get candidates like that who have a record of progressive action, a record of being out in the streets organizing with everyday folks, then you build a certain amount of excitement which allows you to have a ground game, which also allows you to pull out a base of voters who are not ordinarily coming out. I think that’s one of the biggest things the Democrats have a disadvantage around, is that as the shift happens, you don’t have the excitement, the electricity for the candidates who are running because they don’t bring the policies that excite the base. I think that’s one of the biggest changes, if the Democratic Part at all is going to try to say that it represents working class interests or represents progressive interests, then it’s going to have to something about the candidates it puts forth to represent these ideas. AARON MATÉ: Kamau Franklin, political editor for Atlanta Black Star. Kamau, thank you. KAMAU FRANKLIN: Thank you. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.