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John Ossoff

In yesterday's special election to fill the US House seat vacated by Republican Tom Price in Georgia's 6th District, Democrat Jon Ossoff very nearly won without the need for a runoff, claiming 48% of the 192,084 ballots cast. In fact, his vote total almost matches all eleven Republican candidates put together, eclipsing Karen Handel, his closest rival. Ossof will now face Handel in a June runoff.

As many observers have noted, the conservative GA-06 is the former home district of Newt Gingrich, and has been represented by a string of Republicans. But things have changed now. Here are five key takeaways from last night's result that will have an impact on the outcome of the Ossoff-Handel runoff race - and on the rest of country in 2018.

Democratic voters really are energized

Ossoff received a huge flood of donations - both from Democrats living inside the district and all around the country. Given how close he came, we can reasonably expect a repeat.

But it wasn't just money that made Ossoff surge from the low-to-mid 40s to a near-majority - he was also lifted by Democratic phone banks, volunteer canvassers, and other ‘get out the vote' (GOTV) efforts. People in California were making calls while people form De Kalb county were knocking on doors.

Why? Because Ossoff ran a fearless campaign on a progressive platform. He didn't hedge his support for LGBT rights, or surrender rhetorical ground on immigration, or adopt a pro-life stance to please conservatives. Being a "real Democrat" was not a liability in deeply-red Georgia because Democrats near and far had a positive response to Ossoff's out-and-proud message.

Hear that, Democrats? It's time to BE Democrats.

Trump and his supporters see this as a referendum on his presidency

The president took an unusual interest in this race, recording a robocall and tweeting his intense opposition to Ossoff. After Handel's narrow "victory" of forcing a runoff, he also tweeted congratulations - to himself.

Across social media, Trump supporters also congratulated themselves. Many posted memes depicting Ossoff as a puppet of George Soros and a tool of "elitists." Others made confident declarations of victory in June, or tried to spin the result as a defeat for the Democratic Party because Ossoff spent so much money.

It's all nonsense, of course. Ossoff was not even supposed to be competitive, and as recently as a week ago, he wasn't even supposed to come close to 50% of the vote. He out-performed all expectations and will likely do so again.

The very fact that Trump and his supporters have invested so much in defeating Ossoff is a sign of how worried they really are, and ought to be. Remember, Donald only carried this district by 1.5 points, badly underperforming Price, who was reelected by 20 points. A swing that big on a national scale would wipe the GOP completely out of power in Washington.

The Tea Party is now completely irrelevant

Once upon a time, Amy Kremer was among the most powerful figures in the Tea Party Express. Yesterday, she got 349 votes, finishing 10th of the 11 Republicans on the ballot, 13th overall. Basically, she only beat the vanity candidates.

Kremer's campaign collapsed weeks ago after her manager and staff quit. They had not been paid because Kremer, a former flight attendant, refused to do effective fundraising. Instead, she tried to inspire grassroots support by raffling off an AR-15 rifle - a move which got her some national press, but not much cash.

Her complete humiliation is all the more telling because Karen Handel is widely seen as the least Trump-centric of all the Republicans who ran in the 6th District. Handel, who was forced to resign from leadership of the Susan G. Komen charitable foundation after nearly destroying it in a bid to harm Planned Parenthood, has now exposed deep divisions within the Republican coalition.

Whereas the Tea Party once brought grassroots energy to Republican politics, today they are a spent force, while the party's business wing and evangelical wing and activist wing all seem to work in opposition. This tension has also been revealed by party infighting over legislation to "repeal and replace" Obamacare, for example.

Before last November, Republican candidates could unite in opposition to Barack Obama; now, Handel's TV ads opposing the "liberal agenda" - as symbolized by Obama's face - seem laughably out of touch.

Democrats must contest every district in every state

Given this new political environment, in which Democrats are galvanized by opposition to Trump but Republicans have nothing similar to bring their fraying coalition together, there is really no excuse for leaving any congressional seat unchallenged, even in the reddest districts.

The US Senate will be a tough row to hoe for Democrats. Thanks to the constitutional vagaries of our elections, they are defending a larger number of seats than the GOP. But 2018 will be the best opportunity they've had to flip the House of Representatives since losing it in the Tea Party wave of 2010.

To get there, Democrats must stop surrendering ground and borrow the Tea Party's template: make Donald Trump toxic, then make every vote for a Republican into a vote for Donald Trump. Wherever the GOP has a "safe" district, run a progressive Democrat. Wherever the GOP is weak, run an even more progressive Democrat like Jon Ossoff. And wherever Democrats have a safe seat, run the most progressive Democrat available.

Which is not to say that Democrats should mindlessly imitate the Tea Party where it went wrong. Sure, if you can convince Dianne Feinstein to retire from her Senate seat, go ahead. But Chris McDaniel, whose primary challenge to Thad Cochran imploded in scandal over dirty tricks, is a caution against "purity tests," while Todd Akin is a fine example of self-defeating extremism.

Democrats must run hard, but they can't let the perfect become the enemy of the good. After all, the challenges are already so enormous.

Our elections are supremely vulnerable

Last night, the vote counting halted for almost two hours when poll workers in Fulton county suffered a "bad card" in one of their machines and had to call tech support. This followed the late-breaking news that two ExpressPoll machines were stolen from a Cobb County precinct manager's private vehicle last week.

To make matters worse, almost as soon as the error was fixed, Ossoff - who had been over 50% all night - suddenly fell below that magic threshold. Did I mention that Karen Handel lives in Fulton county, and that it's her primary bastion of support? Or that this is not the first time that "errors" have plagued their elections?

While it's certainly not clear that this episode was anything more than a glitch, it does challenge confidence in the final result. That's a real problem for democracy, especially when the ballot is cast on electronic voting machines that lack a paper trail to verify voter intentions, as in Georgia.

Republicans love to pretend that voter fraud is common. Donald Trump claimed that millions of undocumented immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton because his ego will not admit to losing the popular vote. But why bother stealing elections one voter at a time when you can just do it wholesale?

Democrats must ensure election integrity wherever they can through the usual means, such as having poll watchers observe the count. But the party should really make this a platform issue, too.

After the botched Florida ballot of 2000, there was a major bipartisan push to update voting systems to the 21st Century. But in far too many cases, states ended up with unreliable voting machines that have not aged well. This situation suits Republicans just fine, so Democrats can own the alternative, free and clear. They ought to exploit the opportunity.


Featured image: screengrab