Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price as the congressman from Georgia’s 6th district, backed out of a CNN debate next week, a few days before the election. This is ironic, given that Ossoff attacked his opponent, Republican Karen Handel, for hesitating to agree to debates.
“Part of bringing fresh leadership and accountability to Washington is to openly and publicly debate the issues that matter most to Georgians, and I hope Secretary Handel accepts these debates,” Ossoff said in May.
Ossoff declined to participate in a June 13 debate at the Atlanta Press Club (APC) which CNN had proposed to broadcast, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sunday. The election will be held the following Tuesday, June 20. The only likely televised debates in the race will occur this week: Tuesday on WSB-TV and Thursday on WABE-TV/PBA 30, a PBS station based in Atlanta. A June 15 radio debate remains a possibility.
“The Atlanta Press Club has a 25-year history of providing Georgia voters fair and balanced debates through its Laudermilk-Young Debate Series,” APC President Lauri Strauss said in a statement. “We regret Jon Ossoff has declined to be a part of this debate, which would have helped inform the voters of Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District and engaged viewers around the country.”
Ossoff had challenged Handel to six debates, and Handel presented four dates, including the CNN debate.
Ossoff spokeswoman Amy Mesner gave CNN’s executive director for political programming Mark Preston an email with a potential explanation. “We’re committed to participating in debates moderated by members of the metro Atlanta press corps, so unfortunately Jon will not be attending the proposed debate on June 13th,” Mesner wrote.
Predictably, Handel’s campaign mocked Ossoff for pulling out. “We know why a caricature candidate who has spent more than $10 million on TV ads suddenly doesn’t want the exposure of a national audience,” the Republican’s spokesman Charlie Harper said. “His fictitious narrative and flimsy resume won’t stand up to scrutiny.”
This political gamesmanship comes as the race has tightened considerably in the final weeks.
On April 18, Ossoff won a temporary victory, securing 48.1 percent of the vote — just shy of the 50 percent plus one required to avoid a runoff. This victory was heavily bankrolled by out-of-state donations (95 percent), which brought Ossoff’s war chest to $8 million.
Handel took 19.8 percent of the vote, despite being outspent by a nearly 20-to-1 margin. After the election, President Donald Trump tweeted, “It is now Hollywood vs. Georgia on June 20th.” Unlike Handel, Ossoff does not even live in the district.
But the congressional district is solid red, and Handel only struggled because there were multiple Republicans in the race. By May 23, Ossoff’s lead had shrunk to 7 percent. The most recent poll has the race neck-and-neck.
In a WSB-TV/Landmark Communications survey released Thursday, 49 percent of voters said they supported Ossoff, while 48 percent expressed a preference for Handel.
The Georgia 6th race has become the most prominent special election in 2017, as Democrats hope to ride a wave of anti-Trump activism to electoral victories. Similar efforts failed in Montana and Kansas, but Democrats eye Georgia 6th as a chance to turn a red district blue.
The race is already the most expensive congressional election in history, with $30 million having been spent by both sides since late May. The record-breaking spending makes sense, given how few races will happen this year. But Georgia 6th is not likely to go blue, given its history. While Trump narrowly won there in November, Price took the district in a stream of large victories.
If recent polling is accurate, the race is narrowing, and it is likely Ossoff will fall short of 50 percent yet again.