Former Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff during a press conference in Liberty Plaza last year. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

6th District Dems distance themselves from Ossoff but echo his strategy

The two Democrats contending in the primary runoff in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District tried to communicate a similar message at a debate Wednesday: that they can succeed where Jon Ossoff fell short in last year’s special election. 

Democratic candidates Kevin Abel and Lucy McBath are running on center-left platforms similar to Ossoff’s that are more progressive than those historically offered by Democrats in Republican-leaning Southern districts. And while both haven’t been shy about criticizing President Trump, they paid lip service to the need to win over the kind of independent-minded Republicans who voted for him, a goal that was central to Ossoff’s campaign. 

The then-30-year-old filmmaker’s bid for Congress shattered fundraising records and hinged on a bid to win over independents and disenchanted Republicans in the conservative-leaning district, before ultimately losing to Republican Karen Handel by about 4 percentage points.  

Ossoff drew criticism from Democrats after the election for not doing enough to slam the president’s policies and, despite his caution in speaking out against Trump, Handel’s campaign portrayed him as a hardline liberal aligned with Democratic leaders.

This year’s candidates differentiated themselves from Ossoff by touting their years of experience and hammering liberal causes like gun control and immigration reform during the debate hosted by the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon. But at the same time, they both repeated the importance of reaching across the aisle and connecting with voters who skew Republican—a message that candidates typically shy away from before winning a primary. 

Abel painted himself as a businessman and long-time Alpharetta resident who could challenge the Trump administration on immigration and health care while still appealing to moderate Republican voters.

“We know that this is a Republican-leaning district, we do not want to be heartbroken again on November 7th. Let’s win this race for crying out loud,” Abel said. “We have to win some of those independent votes and some of those independent-minded Republican votes that just didn’t come out for Jon last year who will come out and vote for me in November.”

McBath, who entered the primary in the eleventh hour, has campaigned primarily on a platform of gun control inspired by the death of her son in 2012. McBath stopped short of explicitly saying she would go out of her way to win over Republican voters, but posited that her platform would appeal to residents regardless of party and touted experience reaching across the aisle as an advocate for gun control.

“Many times I work with people that don’t think like me ... I am a problem solver and I’m willing to work across the aisle,” she said. “My vision is diverse and inclusive. My vision represents Republicans who may never even vote for me as a representative. Because I understand and know that that is this district, that is who we are.” 

As she emphasized her liberal platform, McBath implied that Abel was too moderate for the district and said he advocated for the creation of a third political party in the past. While Abel did not directly deny the claim, he emphasized his current allegiance to the Democratic Party. 

But the two candidates aimed to walk a similar line between voicing resistance to Trump and Handel while still expressing an interest in compromise and bipartisanship. At many points, they took near-identical positions in response to debate questions. 

Both Abel and McBath said they understood the decision by owners of the Virginia restaurant that denied service to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week, but added that they disagree with the argument made by congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) that voters should tell Trump officials that “they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

The two candidates also aligned in slamming Handel for cutting off a Democratic congressman on the House floor last week for breaking the chamber’s rules by playing audio of refugee children separated from their parents at the border. They called Handel’s statements that she opposes Trump’s policy of family separations disingenuous. They both gave Handel some credit, however, for vocally opposing Trump on steel tariffs.

One of the few moments of stark disagreement came in response to a question about Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that immediately sparked protests in Gaza and violent clashes with Israeli forces. Addressing the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon, McBath said she opposed the move, painting it as an impediment to a peace deal between Israel and Palestinian authorities. Abel, who is Jewish, disagreed.

“Jerusalem has always been the capital of Israel. It has been recognized as the capital by the U.S. government for many many years. I do support the move of the embassy to Jerusalem,” Abel said. “I just hope this does not pre-signal issues in any role the United States will play in any future peace agreement.”

The Democratic nominee for the 6th District will be decided in a runoff election on July 24. Karen Handel, who did not face a primary opponent, has been quietly raising money in advance of the general election in November.

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