Look at the raw numbers from Tuesday’s 6th Congressional District race and you’ll see that U.S. Rep. Karen Handel actually built on the support she received in last year’s special election against Jon Ossoff.
Twenty-one thousand more voters in north DeKalb, Fulton and eastern Cobb counties supported the Roswell Republican in the midterms than 17 months ago, when the district played host to the most expensive U.S. House race of all time.
But unlike the June 2017 special election, in which Handel bested Ossoff by 4 percentage points, the former Georgia secretary of state came up several thousand votes short against her Democratic opponent. Handel conceded to Lucy McBath, a first-time candidate, on Thursday morning.
The 6th District race was Georgia’s most high-profile upset in a year that drew near presidential-level turnout. Until a few weeks ago — and even leading into election night — many political handicappers did not list Handel among the lawmakers most in danger of losing their seats.
But sky-high turnout sparked by the state’s marquee gubernatorial race, simmering suburban dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump and major outside assistance from groups linked to mega-donor Michael Bloomberg all helped McBath eke out a win over Handel, allies of the Democrat said in interviews this week.
But the McBath campaign and its allies also attribute the Democrat’s win to the candidate’s powerful personal story, which they say helped her cut through the political noise and connect with voters.
“The voters responded to my commitment to put aside partisan fights for the good of the American people,” McBath said Wednesday as she declared victory over Handel. “Six years ago, I went from a Marietta mom to a mother on a mission.”
On the stump and in her television ads, McBath described how the death of her teenage son sparked her own activism, lobbying for stricter gun laws as a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
McBath also quickly began tying Handel to the more unpopular policies of Trump, including the Obamacare replacement plan he endorsed and the family separations crisis that dominated headlines this summer.
That put Handel in a tough spot.
She had carefully separated herself from many of the president’s most contentious policies, including the border separations and tariffs. But she also couldn’t outwardly denounce the president because he was still wildly popular among the GOP base.
But that was not enough to separate her in the eyes of well-educated suburban voters turned off by Trump’s slash-and-burn style. They rejected Republicans up and down the ballot in metro Atlanta, booting not just Handel but more than a half-dozen GOP incumbents from the statehouse.
“The top does matter and it matters tremendously,” Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, a former chairman of the Georgia GOP, said of Trump. “If you’re in that party, you can’t run from it. … I’ve got three daughters and a wife and we’ve had some rather heated discussions about politics over the last few weeks and months, and they mostly centered on frustration with the White House.”
Top of the ticket
McBath and other down-ticket Democrats were also bolstered by Stacey Abrams. Enthusiasm for her history-making campaign for governor helped spark Democratic turnout to levels seen largely in presidential years, particularly in metro Atlanta, and those candidates were able to benefit from the Abrams campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts.
Handel did not have the same benefit with Republican gubernatorial nominee Brian Kemp. Her campaign knocked on 30,000 doors, but Kemp’s operation was largely focused on driving up turnout in rural, deeply conservative swaths of the state.
Abrams, meanwhile, spoke to kitchen table issues such as Medicaid expansion that resonated with suburban voters.
McBath also had her own behind-the-scenes help from Democrats that helped her build up her campaign infrastructure.
Grassroots groups that emerged following Trump’s election and canvassed for Ossoff in 2017 helped do the same for McBath, Abrams and other Democratic candidates. And after McBath secured the Democratic nomination this summer, staff from House Democrats’ campaign arm and the political action committee Emily’s List helped scale up her campaign operation and hone its overall strategy and fundraising plans, according to a House Democratic strategist familiar with the effort. They urged McBath to more frequently discuss her two bouts with breast cancer, giving her a personal way to discuss health care and insurance protections for pre-existing conditions, which became a top issue in many House races nationwide.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s involvement helped finance McBath’s early ads and gave her legitimacy in the eyes of major party donors, but McBath also benefited from thousands of smaller campaign contributions — some as small as $5 or $10 — from the Democratic fundraising website ActBlue. Republicans have no comparable platform that connects candidates with donors nationwide.
By far the biggest outside player in the contest was the Bloomberg-affiliated Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control group for which McBath once worked. The organization plowed more than $4.5 million into the race, mostly financing television ads that helped build up McBath’s name identification ahead of the primary and general elections while also attacking Handel.
“We’ve known Lucy for years now, since her son Jordan was killed, and the one thing we know about her is that she is a natural leader who has a story to tell,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown. “It’s a story that resonated with Georgia-06 voters.”
While Handel’s campaign slightly outraised McBath’s, it could not match the outside support from groups such as Everytown.
The House GOP’s campaign arm and other allied groups such as the Congressional Leadership Fund were focused elsewhere this year, playing defense against a Democratic-friendly political map in the House. By the time the National Republican Congressional Committee jumped into the race in mid-October with $1.4 million worth of McBath attack ads, early voting was well underway.
Ossoff characterized McBath’s victory and the close race run by Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux in the nearby 7th Congressional District as the fruit of a “perfect storm” at the ballot box.
“Strong candidates like Lucy and Carolyn running strong campaigns, Stacey Abrams at the top of the ticket driving historic turnout, Trump destroying the GOP’s reputation, damaged and invisible incumbents and thousands of tireless progressive volunteers,” he said. “It all helped sweep away the GOP’s hold on Atlanta’s suburbs.”
McBath might need a similar combination of factors in 2020 to fight off a tough Republican effort to regain the seat.
Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/politics.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.