(Correction appended below)
The special election for Georgia’s 6th District seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has been described ad nauseam as a referendum on President Trump’s first weeks in office.
It was indeed a referendum, but not one about Trump: the referendum was about the failure of the Georgia GOP to do its job.
This past Tuesday, leftist Democrat candidate Jon Ossoff nearly cleared the 50 percent hurdle to win the conservative district outright. He was prevented, just barely, by last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts by the Congressional Leadership Fund, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and by Trump himself, who waded into the race to encourage Republican voters to show up and vote for someone, anyone Republican.
The last-minute intervention was necessary because the Republican field, spread thin by 11 candidates in a Hobbesian “jungle primary,” spent much of the race sniping at each other and running attack ads against other Republicans. This demoralizing pageant was made worse by the virtual absence of the state GOP apparatus. The state party can also be blamed for not trying to use its influence to reduce a crazy, 11-candidate field in the first place.
This remarkable show of Republican Party disunity created an opening for the Democrats. In sharp contrast to the state GOP, the state DNC acted decisively, shoving a leftist neophyte ahead of tested (and more moderate) Democratic candidates like former State Senator Ron Slotin, who ran against then-Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney for her seat in 1996.
Jon Ossoff, the leftist neophyte in question, unquestionably had advantages. He received a major boost from both local and national media. Even before he declared, he was the darling of the press, and it showed in the endless feature stories and puff pieces about him.
Ossoff’s friends in the local media abetted his strategy of presenting himself as a political moderate even while outside money poured in from leftist sources. Consequently, the 30-year old found himself with both advantageous optics and an army of paid staff. To further burnish his golden boy image, this paid staff was frequently described in the press as “volunteers,” a misnomer designed to insinuate that they were just ordinary people inspired by the righteous desire to “do something” about the terrible problem of Trump.
Ossoff literally could not have received more assistance from the media.
Nevertheless, in a district like the 6th, that should not have mattered.
Something else happened.
Newt Gingrich represented the 6th for 20 years, from 1979 to 1999. Johnny Isakson followed him, then Tom Price. That’s the official story. But the most crucial fact about Republican politics in the 6th has not been discussed in the media.
The 6th District is one of a handful of places where the TEA Party movement was born. Several of the principal players in TEA Party Patriots lived there. Tension between the GOP and citizen activists is nothing new here.
To be completely accurate, the TEA party was founded in the old 6th district, as it existed before the district lines were re-drawn in 2011. And in the current race, Cherokee County, which was the ground zero for citizen activism, is no longer part of the district. But it’s entirely fair to say that the political landscape created by TEA and other citizen activists still dominates the district – and especially the relationship of rank-and-file Republicans with their state party.
The various citizen activist groups have entirely legitimate complaints with the GOP. I don’t dispute that at all. But unfortunately, in trying to reform the GOP, or just fight the GOP, I see many (not all) of these activists quickly falling into precisely the same behavior that they’re objecting to when they see it practiced by the party insiders whom they oppose. Dirty tricks, neglecting issues in favor of personal attacks and personal gain, dishonesty to the rank-and-file, backing by secret money: these are political diseases not limited to the party apparatus.
I personally have no more faith that the libertarian upstart offering an “alternative to politics as usual” is anything other than the latest flavor of politics as usual. I have no faith that I know what they really stand for regarding the three big issues that motivate many others and me, and I’ve sat in too many meetings where they have excruciatingly avoided answering direct questions about their core beliefs regarding immigration and crime.
And on drug legalization, they’re just for it.
I also don’t see how you can claim to be cleaning up the influence of money in politics when you’re taking money behind closed doors from the very same people who give money to the party apparatus you think you’re overthrowing. The TEA Party – and I use the term here as shorthand for the larger citizen activist movement – has serious problems with ethics among its leadership. Ditto the GOP, of course. Ditto the libertarians.
The real lesson the 6th may be teaching us is a lesson about the current dismal state of both GOP grassroots outreach and conservative/libertarian citizen activist movement leadership. If you put the party officials and the (often self-anointed) citizen activist “leaders” behind a curtain and disguised their voices, I don’t think you would be able to tell the difference between them. Thus do revolutions collapse, taking what was holding things together before them down with them in the fall.
Blame lies, too, with outside groups angling to control both the state GOP and the citizen activist upstarts. These groups put on different faces and talk different talks depending on whom they’re courting, but at the end of the day, they’ll throw their influence anywhere to keep hold of it.
On the Republican side of the 6th District race, Club for Growth Action spent $441,000* to oppose Republican front-runner Karen Handel, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It’s fair to say that Club for Growth’s meddling nearly cost Republicans a congressional seat, and there is still time for Republicans to lose when Handel and Ossoff face each other in the runoff on June 20. The same people who donate to Club for Growth fund scores of organizations appealing to citizen activists and other grassroots activists across the Right. But they don’t deal with them openly and honestly.
The race in the 6th has exposed a great many structural and organizational weaknesses and schisms, not only in the state GOP but also among the various factions of activists – social conservative, citizen activist, party loyal, and libertarian. These groups have about two months to get it right before the runoff election.
Behavior – and transparency – need to change.