“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”
— Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Star Wars”
What’s happening in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District should not be happening.
People are excited, even passionate about a close congressional race. Voters in both major parties are animated by the idea that politics matters, that they themselves might matter, that they can play a meaningful role in their own governance. Something approaching democracy has broken out in the 6th, contentious and splendid, but in the eyes of the political establishment it should not be happening. The structure that they’ve erected to squelch such outbursts has failed, at least temporarily.
Look at the map. Look at prior election results. The boundaries of the 6th were drawn to ensure that only Republicans could compete and win there, just as other districts have been drawn as reservations for Democrats. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried the 6th District by a margin of 23.3 percentage points. In the 2016 general election, Tom Price won re-election by almost 37 points. In ordinary times, and by conscious design, there is no way a Democrat could even hope to compete there.
And yet Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old political neophyte with no name recognition, may yet pull it off. As Ossoff himself would tell you, he doesn’t deserve the credit for that accomplishment. Instead, the man most responsible for making the 6th competitive is Donald J. Trump. His surprise victory last November has energized Democrats and independents not just in the 6th but around the country. It has also forced at least some Republicans to question whether a party increasingly defined by Trumpian obsessions and behavior is still worthy of their automatic support.
That’s particularly true in the well-educated and affluent 6th, which has a median household income of $83,833, well above the Georgia average of $50,768. These are professional people with good jobs in corporate America, in companies where the sexist, chauvinist antics of our new president would never be tolerated. They operate in a business environment in which diversity, global engagement and transparency are welcome, not treated as threats, in which facts are treated with respect and the notion of a verifiable reality still holds sway.
Under these far from ordinary circumstances, in a special election with no incumbent in the race, the 6th has become somewhat competitive. And yes, that’s in part because of the money contributed to Ossoff in small amounts by Democrats all over the country. “Only $1 in every $20 raised for Democrat Jon Ossoff came from people inside GA-6,” as a tweet last week from the Republican National Committee in Washington reminded us.
Such statements make me smile and shake my head. Washington Republicans, including the RNC, are fully engaged in the 6th, where millions of dollars are being spent on attack ads against Ossoff. How much of that money was raised from people within the district? Shoot, how much came from people of any kind, anywhere? The answer is probably very little, but we cannot know for sure because again, the political establishment has made it almost impossible to discern funding sources for such campaigns. If you, as a citizen, want to give $200 to a candidate, your contribution must be publicly reported. If you’re a billionaire or a corporation wanting to invest $2 million in a particular political cause, the system gives you ways to do so with complete anonymity.
In fact, it’s important to note how rare this outburst of democracy in the 6th really is. Georgia has 14 congressional districts. In five of those districts, the chance of incumbents losing was so abysmally low that nobody of the opposing party even filed to run in last November’s election. Voters in those districts literally had no choice in who was going to represent them in Congress.
In the remaining nine districts, including the 6th, the concept of choice was illusory at best.¹ None of the nine “contested” races was decided by fewer than 20 points; in a state that Trump won by just 5 percentage points, the average margin of victory in “contested” congressional races was 35.5 points. The system is so weighted that even if Ossoff were to pull off the victory, the chances that he could buck the system and win the seat again in 2018 would be pretty slim.
So yes, given all that, what is happening in the 6th District is indeed bordering on the extraordinary. You can take that as a sign of a healthy republic but in fact it’s the opposite. It shouldn’t take the extraordinary to give people a voice, an actual choice. It shouldn’t require a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of unusual events and personalities to render democracy viable again in this one district, in this one election cycle.
But it has.
¹ The situation is even worse in the state Legislature. In the 180-member Georgia House, for example, 149 candidates faced no general-election competition last fall from the supposedly “opposing” party. Think about that: We like to tell ourselves that we live in a representative democracy, a republic, yet the truth is that almost 83 percent of Georgians did not get to choose who would represent them in Atlanta. It was chosen for them.