Hyping Ossoff's Non-Victory, NYT Spurs Democrats to Fight for Montana House Seat

Georgia Democrat and newly minted liberal hero Jon Ossoff may have failed to take advantage of glowing media coverage and huge out-of-state donations by falling short in a special election to fill a congressional seat, but Thursday’s New York Times front page used Ossoff’s moral victory (?) to spur national Democrats to fight in another special election, for a House seat in Montana. Inside the paper, reporter Richard Fausset hyped Ossoff optimism even after he failed to win on Tuesday.

First, in the page one story “Moved by Georgia, Democrats in Montana Say, It’s Our Turn,” political reporter Jonathan Martin traveled to Bozeman, Mont. to drive a spur into the Democratic Party’s side.

Rob Quist surveyed his audience last week at an annual powwow of Montana’s Native American tribes, a kaleidoscope of feathers, moccasins and beads, before turning his thoughts to a very different audience, far to the east: the national Democratic Party.

“They’ve been on the sidelines a little too long, and it’s time for them to get in the game,” said Mr. Quist, the banjo-playing Democratic nominee in a special May election to fill Montana’s at-large House seat.

But, he predicted, “they’re coming in.”

They may have little choice. After a hard-fought campaign to fill a House seat in the Atlanta suburbs fell just short of outright victory on Tuesday, the House seat in Montana vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is up next, and a groundswell of new activism on the left is demanding attention.

Democrats have now chalked up a closer-than-expected loss in a House special election in Kansas this month and a near miss in Georgia, leading logically to discussions of how hard to play going forward -- not only in the June 20 runoff between their first-time candidate Jon Ossoff and the Republican Karen Handel in Georgia, but also in looming House races in Montana and South Carolina.

But grass-roots liberals are not about to let party leaders lapse back into traditional red state, blue state assumptions. Instead, the Democrats’ enthusiastic base is demanding to compete on terrain that once seemed forbidding, a formula for disputes now and in 2018 about where to put the party’s money and field operations.

Martin played up Democratic optimism.

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Mr. Ossoff’s taking 48.1 percent of the vote on Tuesday in the reliably Republican district in Georgia vacated by Tom Price, the health and human services secretary, means a long, expensive campaign to the runoff. Republicans are already rolling in the negative advertising to stop Mr. Ossoff’s improbable rise.

Martin helped Democrats push previous election controversies that hurt the Republican candidate Greg Gianforte.

Some Democrats here complain that no money has been spent focusing attention on the same issues that sank Mr. Gianforte’s run for governor last year, like his lawsuit to stop access to a river near his Bozeman home. Access to public lands is a perennial hot-button issue in vast Western states, particularly in pristine Montana.

“They need to come in and rip the scab off the message that hurt Gianforte last year,” said Evan Barrett, a nearly 50-year veteran of Montana Democratic politics, alluding to the ad assault Democrats unleashed over Mr. Gianforte’s lawsuit. “Those wounds are still very fresh.”

Martin concluded with Democratic hype.

Nancy Keenan, the Montana Democratic chairwoman, said the seeds for an upset had been sown.

“Get in the game, get in the game,” she said in an interview at the state party office in Helena, “because you’re not going to take credit for it after we’ve won it.”

The front of the paper’s National section featured reporter Richard Fausset’s coverage of the first round of the special election in Georgia featuring new liberal hero Jon Ossoff, who despite great publicity and enormous spending outlay failed to attain the 50% mark necessary to avoid a runoff with the Republican winner in June: “Both Parties Claim Victory in Georgia, But Battles Goes on – House Race Moves to Runoff As Trump’s Shadow Looms.”

(The Times had previously joined the rest of the media in hailing Ossoff when it looked like he might win outright on Tuesday.)

When Jon Ossoff came within a couple of percentage points of winning 50 percent of the votes -- and thus winning outright -- in the special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District on Tuesday, Democrats trumpeted the unexpectedly strong showing in a traditional Republican stronghold. But Republicans were also pleased that they had forced Mr. Ossoff into a June runoff against a seasoned candidate they believe their fractured party can unite behind.

This closely watched race in the suburbs north of Atlanta has been widely billed as a referendum on Donald J. Trump’s presidency, and local residents are girding themselves for a new bombardment of money and messaging as the two major parties fight for the chance to brand the Republican president as either damaged goods or a wily survivor.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump, as divisive and catalyzing as ever, is waiting in the wings, amid speculation that he may be mulling a more personal involvement in the race that could end up stoking Republican excitement, Democratic anger -- or both.

....

Activists have filled Mr. Ossoff’s campaign chest with $8.3 million, and more is on the way: On Wednesday, Thomas E. Perez, the Democratic National Committee chairman, sent a fund-raising email encouraging party members to “go all-in and elect Jon,” and “send a big, loud message to Donald.”

Or another way to spin it: The Democrats have already spent $8 million on an inexperienced candidate and may only come out with a moral victory in a Republican-leaning district.

Fausset strove to make Trump a stumbling block for the Republican candidate Karen Handel.

But even if [Trump] does not stump for Ms. Handel, his presence will be felt keenly in the runoff, with both candidates facing unique Trump-related dilemmas over the next few weeks.

If Ms. Handel keeps a cool distance from the president, she risks alienating the most fervent pro-Trump voters. If she embraces him, she may lend ammunition to Democrats eager to portray Ms. Handel as his tool.

Martin jabbed at Ossoff’s Republican opponent, without even touching the irony of the “Party of Women” working so hard to keep a woman out of Congress:

Critics say Ms. Handel, 55, is somewhat short on charisma, and note that she lost recent bids for governor and United States senator. But she has a loyal base of support in the district, having served as chairwoman of the Fulton County Commission and chief executive of a local Chamber of Commerce.

Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.