As the runoff for Georgia's sixth congressional district finally, finally comes to an end, the campaigns of Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel are winding up in wildly different modes.
Ossoff, whose campaign used the nine-week runoff to pitch him hard to swing voters, closed on a largely positive message. He even declined to attack a local Republican official for saying the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise would help Handel turn out voters. (Ossoff did call for a little-known PAC to take down its ad making that argument explicitly.)
Handel, meanwhile, closed with Georgia-bred members of the Trump administration calling for her — and issuing dark but accurate warnings that Democrats would have Republicans on the ropes if they beat her.
Neither candidate's lacked for money — especially outside money. But the spending done on Handel's behalf, particularly from the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, has been universally negative.
A tourist flipping on TV or looking at mail (I'm assuming the tourist is in an Airbnd) would learn virtually nothing about Handel, the former Georgia secretary of state who won her last election 11 years ago. The message has been entirely about Ossoff, and the poll-tested reasons Republicans should choke down any reservations and vote against him.
The CLF's mail, provided by a source in the district, makes the point eloquently. In scores of mail pieces sent to Republicans, the same message has been drilled again and again: Ossoff will align with House Democratic Nancy Pelosi (who is unpopular with Republican voters), does not currently live in the district and has attracted donors from outside Georgia (a fact unpopular with Republican voters), and worked with the Al Jazeera TV network (which has been demonized for Republican voters). Mailer after mailer hits those same themes, accompanied by a different pun, changing little from the April 18 primary to now. From a shadowy room:
To puppet strings:
To Ossoff looking happy in front of an old televised image of Pelosi.
And to a garbage can:
Only one of seven CLF pieces I reviewed mentioned Handel at all, on one-third of the mailer, with a biography stopping at her time as chair of the Fulton County board of commissioners — a service that ended before the introduction of the iPhone.
Of course, campaign finance law prevents super PACs from coordinating with candidates or party committees. But the mail arriving from the Georgia Republican Party and the Republican National Committee hits the same note — Ossoff/Pelosi, Pelosi/Ossoff — with an occasional reference to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose reluctance to endorse Ossoff was reported in May.
Direct mail, which can more easily slip through the media's filter, is frequently more negative than other advertising.
But the various Republican efforts in Georgia have been just as repetitious — Ossoff/Pelosi, Ossoff/Hollywood, and little mention of Handel. Both the CLF and the National Republican Congressional Committee have run ads featuring Kathy Griffin, whose publicity stunt photo of a severed “Donald Trump” head made news for around 36 hours this month. Griffin, whose involvement in the race was limited to one April tweet in support of Ossoff, has now been linked to Sanders and Pelosi in a lineup of “childish radicals” who back the Democrat.
The negative ads achieved complete self-parody this month, with one of the wilder swings I've ever seen in an attack ad.
In the first round of the election, Ossoff ran a quick biographical spot called “Need to Know,” in which he dramatically described how his media firm sent a documentary crew “to the front lines” of the battle with the Islamic State. Hardly a war story; designed more to clarify what he actually did when he was “paid by Al Jazeera.” (Republican ads have conflated the network with terrorist organizations.)
Two weeks ago, Handel's campaign hit back with “Front Line,” a spot that featured veteran and author Grant McGarry accusing Ossoff of essentially stealing valor from soldiers.
“Jon Ossoff said he sent a team to the front line against ISIS. I fought for our country,” said McCarry. “Jon Ossoff hired a film crew. For him to say that is being on the front lines is disgraceful.”
Let us count the oddities. One: Of course people who are not themselves fighting in a war, from civilians to journalists to aid workers, are often on the “front lines.” Two: Covering a war as a journalist, especially the war in Syria right now, is famously dangerous. Just last year, 14 journalists were killed in Syria and six more in Iraq. Three: McGarry's service ended before the Islamic State's rise, so it's not like Ossoff was claiming to have done what McGarry actually did. The attack made no sense, unless considered as tribalism.
And then it made perfect sense.
Handel's campaign wanted veterans to resent Ossoff because he was a media producer and journalist, not one of them. The ad strategy, and the campaign visit from Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, have had almost nothing to say about what Republicans were working on in Washington. The message was that Republicans would feel terrible if they had to watch Democrats celebrate. It was negative polarization on a micro scale — and, whatever happens, it kept Handel in the fight. It brought Bikers for Trump to Georgia to get out votes because, whatever she stood for, a Handel win would help Trump. It smoothed over the differences some fiscal conservatives had with Handel — votes Ossoff tried to win over with his ads about debt and local business.
If it works for Republicans, the dividends will be tremendous. The “crazy Democrats” ads will write themselves once liberals speculate about voter suppression or late-reporting electronic ballots. And it'll suggest that however unpopular pollsters say the party's agenda has become — a new CNN poll has the congressional party's support at 26 percent — it will be at the top of a pile of evidence that the base can be turned out by essentially handing out “liberal tears” coffee mugs.