SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. — Jeff Jacobson epitomizes the liberal conundrum: Deep down he wanted to back a warrior, but he found himself working for a high priest preaching civil resistance.
The 65-year-old recent retiree from the local Treasury Department office had not been much of a political volunteer, but this year was different. “It was Trump initially,” Jacobson, 65, said outside the field office for Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Yet Jacobson found himself volunteering for someone who studiously avoided confronting President Trump, trying to win over enough Republican voters in the suburbs north of Atlanta to flip a district that had been in GOP hands for decades.
Ossoff lost Tuesday to an underwhelming perennial Republican candidate, Karen Handel, in a decisive fashion that is sure to spark more questions about what type of candidates and what type of message Democrats need in the Trump era.
The most passionate Democratic activists have wanted a full-frontal assault on Trump and congressional Republicans, angrily denouncing party leaders for not aggressively supporting more progressive candidates.
Indeed, more than 200 miles to the north, a dramatically underfunded Democrat, Archie Parnell, nearly pulled off an upset victory in a House seat that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee largely ignored. In Ossoff, Democrats hoped they had found a potential new path to defeating Republicans with a message of peace and civility. They calculated that the fiery rage, often associated with supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would not win over moderate Republicans and centrists, whose support Ossoff needed to have any chance to win a district that Tom Price, the six-term congressman who is Trump’s health secretary, won by more than 20 percentage points in November.
So Ossoff chose the high priest route instead of the fierce warrior. It was civil disobedience rather than civil unrest. And he still lost, by an even wider margin than the almost forgotten Parnell.
On the eve of the vote, Jacobson acknowledged that there were times he wanted Ossoff to be more of a fighter.
“Sometimes my wife and I are a little frustrated, but if that’s who he is, that’s who he is. He’s not getting down and dirty,” he said Monday.
Democrats were declaring that just by making the Georgia race so competitive, they set a marker for how tough the 2018 midterms will be for Republicans. Many observers noted that this district is one of 35 that either voted for Hillary Clinton or that Trump won by less than four percentage points, making it a key focal point for next year’s bid to win the 24 seats needed for Democrats to take the majority.
Democrats noted that by other measures, nearly 70 more Republican-held seats will be more friendly than Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in the midterm elections. All spring, Republicans have had to unload enormous amounts of funds to prop up their candidates in four successive special elections — victories that proved they could win one-on-one competitions with their campaign treasure chests.
That advantage will not be as readily available next year if the GOP is defending dozens of seats while Democrats will be expected to defend only 10 or so.
Still, Ossoff’s performance was a bitter pill for liberals who wanted a tougher challenge to Trump. “The best way for Democrats to maximize gains in 2018 — especially in purple and red districts — is to harness the power of the resistance and field candidates who proudly challenge power,” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said after the results.
This was the beta test for the DCCC’s theory of the 2018 case that well-educated, suburban voters who swung away from Trump last year would reject GOP candidates for Congress.
Ossoff, while eschewing the heated anti-Trump rhetoric, tapped into the online energy of that crowd and raised and spent a record sum, upward of $25 million, allowing him a significantly greater ad presence on local television and radio.
But Republicans countered with a message that should cause great concern for Democrats — returning to their effort to tie Democrats to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). One senior Republican involved in the overall effort said that the more the race became national in tone, through the media and the way the voters perceived it here, the easier it was to turn Ossoff into a conventional Democrat.
Pelosi’s image appeared in almost every ad run by Handel, the National Republican Congressional Committee and its affiliated super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund. It was reminiscent of the 2010 campaign, when she was House speaker, and her advisers estimated that more than $50 million worth of negative ads ran citing her. That year, Democrats lost 63 seats along with the majority.
Seven years later, Pelosi remains a polarizing enough figure that she never appears publicly in a highly contested House race, instead focusing all her energy on raising tens of millions of dollars for the DCCC and its candidates.
Meanwhile, in this race in Georgia, the most unpopular Republican in the country remained a major presence but not in terms of the messages from either candidate. Handel largely avoided discussing the latest controversies spawned by Trump’s actions, and Ossoff only indirectly mentioned Trump, going out of his way to say that he was willing work with the president if it delivered results.
Privately, Democratic strategists said even before the votes were counted Tuesday that Ossoff’s civility campaign would be mirrored only in more Republican-leaning districts, and that a more aggressive anti-Trump campaign would be waged by candidates in longtime swing districts.
The question that remains to be answered is whether Democrats need more warriors or more priests; complete resistance or civil resistance.
Ossoff’s supporters understood his approach. “I think he represents the best of what we’re trying to do,” Bill Atherton, 41, who works at a nonprofit organization in nearby Roswell, said at the election watch party here.
But before the votes were counted, Jacobson acknowledged that he might feel better if more people in his party threw punches first and asked for forgiveness later.
“I guess you’ve got to be true to yourself, but sometimes I’d like him and the Democrats to get down and dirtier,” he said.