Jon Ossoff, Ed Markey, and the (near-)future of the Democratic Party

The runoff special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District (CD) is June 20, 2017. Democrat Jon Ossoff won the first round of voting on April 19, 2017, but with only 48.1% of the vote. Rather than have separate party primaries, all candidates in Georgia run in a single “jungle primary.” If nobody receives more than 50% of the vote, the top two candidates meet in a runoff. Thus, Ossoff will be facing Republican Karen Handel (19.8%) in eight days.

This election is occurring because Republican Representative Tom Price resigned to become President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services on February 10, 2017. What makes Ossoff’s performance on April 19 so surprising is that Price had won his seven Georgia CD-6 elections by an average of 53.0 percentage points (excluding the 2004 and 2010 races, when Price ran unopposed, drops the average to 34.3%), although he had won in 2016 by “only” 23.4 percentage points.

Price’s dominance makes the performance of Ossoff (and of all five Democrats, who combined for 49% of the vote overall) remarkable, though it should be noted that 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost Georgia CD-6 by only 1.5 percentage points to Trump, after Republican presidential nominees Mitt Romney (2012) and John McCain (2008) had won the CD by an average of 21 percentage points.

Currently, Ossoff is leading in the non-partisan polls (which should be taken with a box of salt) by either 4.8 or 6.9 percentage points. Even a narrow win would be a small political earthquake, because Georgia CD-6, in suburban Atlanta, houses precisely the sort of highly-educated suburban population I argue Democrats need to target.

Thus, on the one hand, a Democratic victory in a historically Republican CD would bode well for their chances of recapturing the U.S. House of Representatives (House) in 2018. On the other hand, Ossoff is running a centrist campaign targeting local district needs, eschewing a more ideologically progressive message, and that is probably why he is winning.

As this article makes clear, Ossoff is opposed to raising taxes (even on the wealthy), is not ready to entertain a single-payer health plan, has not said whether he would support California Representative Nancy Pelosi as the Democratic leader in the House, and thinks it is too soon to discuss impeaching President Trump.

And I would still vote for him if I lived in Georgia CD-6, for the simple reason that for Democrats to regain the House in 2018 and have any chance of acting toward progressive goals, they will need to let more moderate/non-ideological Democratic candidates run campaigns suited to their individual states and CDs.

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On June 1, 2017, I attended Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey’s town hall event at the beautifully-restored Paramount Theater in Boston. To my mind, Markey is a progressive hero, particularly on the environment, even if he has been described as “moderate left of center.”

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Markey was introduced by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Democratic Congressman Michael Capuano, and then he spoke for about 15 minutes, primarily about the dangers posed by a President Trump and the need to defend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), before taking questions.

The first few questions were about the ACA repeal and replace process. With the second overall question, I asked the Senator whether he could convince any fellow Republican Senators to break with pressure from their own party to vote against any ACA repeal/replace bill. He answered that he could, citing his long history of getting bills passed with bipartisan support.

The next two questions were by members of LaRouche PAC, about which the less said, the better (I had to leave the town hall early, and the two questioners were proselytizing outside; I MAY have had a few choice words for them).

And then came the single-payer questions.

Actually, these were more demands than questions.

They were demands that Markey not merely support a single-payer healthcare system (which he does, having introduced legislation to that effect in the past), but that he do so NOW, without equivocation, to the exclusion of all else.

Markey doggedly explained after each such question that he would support such a system again, but for now, the goal needs to be to save the Affordable Care Act. To my practical-progressive mind, what he was saying was “I would love to perform massive gorgeous renovations to our shared house, but right now the house is on fire, and I think we should put that out first.”

That sound about right to me. I support a Medicaid-for-all plan (or a similar variant), but I also recognize that we need to prevent repeal/replace of the ACA first.

One woman kept insisting (from her chair, after she had already asked her single-payer question, which struck me as the sort of rudeness I would never tolerate in my own daughters) that the public now supports a single-payer healthcare system.

The most recent poll I can find that specifically addresses this is a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from December 2015 (1,202 adults nationwide, +/-3%). When asked, “Now, please tell me if you favor or oppose having a national health plan in which all Americans would get their insurance through an expanded, universal form of Medicare-for-all,” 58% were in favor, 34% were opposed, and 8% were unsure or refused to answer the question.

I will admit that I expected the favor/opposed percentages to be much closer, and I am pleasantly surprised that support for a single-payer healthcare system is that high.

Still, here is the current political reality.

We live in a political universe in which the ACA is more popular (47.0% vs. 41.5%) than unpopular, while the AHCA is highly unpopular (17%-31% approval vs. 55-65% disapproval, in recent polling)…and the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate is still doing its darnedest to replace the former with the latter (or a related alternative), with the AHCA having already passed the House by just two votes. Republicans, beholden to their most right-wing voters and their own promises, are blatantly ignoring these data.

When the ACA was being written, inclusion of a “public option” (allowing consumers to buy into the Medicare program, a first step toward single-payer healthcare) was debated. It was ultimately rejected, even though Democrats had supermajorities of 59 Senate seats and 259 House seats (59.5%).

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My point is not that public opinion or election victories do not matter. They absolutely do.

My point is not that the Democrats should reject the progressive fervor of their energized and mobilized base. They absolutely should. The Democratic Party needs greater clarity in what precisely it stands for, and this is a great place (though not the only place) to start.

My point is that the primary goal for Democrats needs to be winning elections. The most progressive platform in the world will get you nothing if you are not in a position to enact it. If the Jon Ossoff’s of the world need to run centrist campaigns to win in traditionally Republican areas like Georgia (or Arizona or Texas or North Carolina), then so be it.

A separate-but-related point is that progressive and moderate Democrats alike need to be supportive of our current elected officials, from progressive champions like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to moderates like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who faces a tough reelection race next year.  Not blindly supportive, but not antagonistic either.

These folks are on the side of progressives, broadly speaking, and they all need our support.

Until next time…

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