Who won the 6th District debate? A few hot takes

Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff at the first 6th District debate. (Branden Camp/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

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Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff at the first 6th District debate. (Branden Camp/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

The first and only live televised debate in Georgia's 6th District debate was held Tuesday night, and it was chock-full of feisty exchanges and scathing attacks between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel.

You can read the AJC's coverage of the debate here. And below are a few different takes from some analysts and experts:

University of Michigan Director of Debate Aaron Kall:

It was a very chippy debate. There was certainly no love lost between the two candidates.

I don't think the debate moved the needle of the race overall much, but it did produce some fireworks and explosive exchanges throughout the 60 minutes. Their passion over healthcare is reflective of the country's deep divisions over an important issue with life and death ramifications.

Handel's "I do not support a livable wage" gaffe will probably receive the most attention coming out of the debate because this race has been flush with so much outside money and the soundbite will conveniently weave into a 30-second advertisement.

Handel did her best to press Ossoff on the residency issue and the rhetorical question about voting in the election was quite clever. Stories about driving on Ga. 400 and supporting his fiance's career was probably his best retort.

Ossoff probably wasn't happy with the debate's disproportionate focus on national and international issues. He declined to participate in the Atlanta Press Club debate for this very reason, but found himself in a debate that could have easily been aired by CNN. He didn't help himself by bringing up Iran when given the opportunity to distance himself from a position held by President Obama.

(Editor's note: Ossoff's campaign has said he didn't accept the CNN debate because it lacked local reporters.)

While President Trump's name didn't come up too frequently, there is some irony regarding his impact on the debate. Handel is somewhat aligned with President Trump and mostly defended his policies, including tax cuts and the travel ban. Ossoff effectively labeled Handel as the career politician and business as usual candidate, which is Trump certainly was not during the 2016 presidential election.

Ossoff did an excellent job of relaying his campaign trail experiences and memorable individuals that will influence his policies. Handel was powerful when discussing the pre-existing medical condition of her sister, but was pretty timid in a cogent defense of the House-passed version of the AHCA.

The momentum and national spotlight from tonight's debate will no doubt spillover to Thursday's encore performance between the two candidates. Given the tremendous amount of pressure and intense spending on the race, both candidates turned in solid performances that should make their supporters proud.

Democratic stragetist Stefan Turkheimer:

If you watched the debate tonight you saw someone who has never run for office appear as if he has been there before, and someone who has run for every office north of dogcatcher look like a deer in the headlights.

If you didn’t watch the debate, you are going to hear about how Karen Handel doesn’t believe in a livable wage. That was a stunning error from someone whose experience and readiness should be her strengths. It can be presumed that most people, when choosing between a livable wage and an unlivable one, would disagree.

Jon Ossoff, though many see him as the face of the resistance, has eschewed that mantle and his only mention of President Donald Trump was an offer to work with him on infrastructure. That tactic reveals how odd this election is: Dislike for Trump has made this election close, yet Ossoff’s ultimate success may come not from the fiery left, but from Republican defectors.

Handel on the other hand, after running as the most moderate of the Republican field until the first election on April 18th, finished her headlong run towards the President with a warm embrace. First up was a full-throated defense of the stalled travel ban, then a Breitbartesque description of the Iran deal and finally the GOP health care bill came in for praise. (Her second biggest error came here when she claimed the GOP bill wouldn’t allow price increases for pre-existing conditions. It absolutely would.)

She peppered in the terms “liberal” and “Pelosi” into as many of her answers as possible seeking to remind her conservative base of their ancient enemies. Whether those words have the power they once did is a question soon to be answered.

Ossoff was calm throughout. He was clear in speaking about foreign policy and intelligence issues, and never opened himself to the hit Handel had likely prepared on his thin resume. He handily deflected claims about not living in the 6th district, something he framed as support for his Emory enrolled fiance. And when the obvious attack on California contributions came, Ossoff was ready by pointing out he boasts more Georgia donors than Handel. Altogether he was poised, on message, and delivered the hits his campaign required.

Handel needed to show her experience and preparation and expose Ossoff as a unprepared kid who was a darling of San Francisco. She was unable to do either. She looked uncomfortable under the lights while Ossoff shined.

Republican pollster Mark Rountree:

Analytically speaking, Karen Handel won the debate tonight. Jon Ossoff won on voice delivery, and did a good job looking to the camera.

But his strategy tonight was simply to "just not mess up, don't cause waves." In that sense, mission accomplished.

Ultimately, Karen Handel won because she connected on an emotional level, particularly when talking about her sister and her positions on Iran, while Mr. Ossoff did not really connect emotionally with voters on anything.

Further, Handel was talking to her base. That's smart when you're in the get-out-the-vote phase. Ossoff was not talking to the ideological base of the Democrats. Worse yet, only 3 percent of voters are undecided in our most recent poll.

Ossoff did not commit errors, but that is not a victory - unless he knows something we don't. And I doubt that.

Overall advantage went to Karen Handel.

Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie:

Debates are not the most studied subject in political science, but the literature that does exist suggests that debates are useful to the extent that they can provide voters with more information about the candidates.

This is especially important for undecided voters and for voters who may not know much about one or both of the candidates.

From that lens, the Sixth District debate may not have been particularly useful for voters looking to learn more about the candidates. Both Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff largely stuck to their talking points, and they reiterated the tropes from their ubiquitous television ads.

In some ways, this debate was a missed opportunity for the candidates to go into greater detail about their positions.

Take, for instance, the discussion of Jon Ossoff’s proposed budget cuts. Ossoff did not discuss the details of those cuts during the debate, and he fumbled when moderator Justin Farmer noted that Ossoff’s proposed cuts are a drop in the bucket compared to the overall budget deficit.

For her part, Karen Handel’s biggest fumble was her comment about the minimum wage. I think she meant to say that she opposed raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, as has been proposed in other parts of the country, because that could have a chilling effect on small business hiring.

What came out was “I do not support a livable wage.”

I suspect that Jon Ossoff and his supporters will try to use that gaffe as a rallying cry in their final outreach to voters.

While the debate did not provide a platform to learn more information about the candidates, it did give voters an opportunity to see both candidates’ demeanors.

Supporters for both candidates were probably heartened by their candidate’s performance. In particular, Karen Handel was spirited enough in the debate to dispel any charges that she is the less energetic candidate.