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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Spinning Georgia’s Election Results

No candidate received 50 percent of the vote in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District special election on April 18, so the top two vote-getters now face off in a June 20 runoff. Nevertheless, both parties claimed a moral victory — spinning the facts to make their points:

  • The Democratic National Committee chairman said Democrat Jon Ossoff — the top vote-getter with 48 percent — “was outspent two to one” by Republicans. In fact, Ossoff and the outside groups who supported him spent more than the Republican groups that opposed him.
  • The White House press secretary called the election “a big loss” for Democrats, because Ossoff’s vote “pretty much tracks” Hillary Clinton’s losing performance in the district in 2016. True, but Ossoff scored about 10 percentage points higher than the House Democratic candidate in 2016.

In a special election to replace former Republican Rep. Tom Price, who stepped down to serve as secretary of health and human services, Ossoff nearly pulled off an upset. He received 48.1 percent of the vote, falling just shy of the 50 percent required to win the election outright. Ossoff will now face Republican Karen Handel in the June 20 runoff election. Handel finished second with nearly 20 percent of the vote.

The spinning began almost as soon as the election results were in.

A day after the election, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the results “a big loss” for Democrats, since Ossoff was denied 50 percent of the vote, while DNC Chairman Tom Perez told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that the Democrats “have a lot of wind at our back” heading into the runoff election.

It was in the CNN interview that Perez claimed that Ossoff was outspent two to one.

Cuomo, April 19: The question is, is this repeatable success in some of these close call places where Clinton won but you have current Republican congressional members in the seats? You spent a lot of money here. And the money was important and relevant in boosting Jon Ossoff. But is that repeatable?

Perez: Oh, I think we can do this in the next 60 days here in Georgia. By the way, Chris, he was outspent two to one. I mean Paul Ryan’s super PAC was in. They hit the panic button big-time on the Republican side.

We don’t know what Perez is talking about because no one at the DNC responded to our emails or phone calls over the last two days. But the Federal Election Commission campaign finance records don’t support his claim that Ossoff was “outspent two to one.”

The FEC reports for Ossoff are only current through March 29 — 20 days before the election. At that time, Ossoff had raised $8.3 million and spent $6.2 million.

FEC records also show that 10 outside groups spent $541,586.70 in support of Ossoff’s campaign as of April 19, a day after the election. Ossoff’s largest outside supporter was the Moveon.org PAC, which spent more than $250,000 in support of Ossoff.

That means that Ossoff and groups supporting him had spent at least $6.7 million, but probably more like $8.9 million since Ossoff had raised $8.3 million as of March 29 and still had more money to spend in April.

By contrast, the FEC data show that seven groups spent nearly $5.8 million right up to Election Day to oppose Ossoff. That included nearly $2.7 million by the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is affiliated with House Speaker Paul Ryan, and $1.9 million by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

So, Ossoff and the groups that supported him outspent the Republican groups that opposed Ossoff.

Separately, the 11 Republican candidates in the race spent $3.1 million. Those candidates were essentially vying against each other for the right to advance to a runoff election. But even adding the $3.1 million in GOP candidate expenditures to the $5.8 million in GOP independent expenditures doesn’t result in Ossoff being “outspent two to one.”

Perez is right that Republican PACs spent heavily in the race — much more than the left-leaning PACs that supported Ossoff. But that money merely offset Ossoff’s huge fundraising advantage. For example, Handel — Ossoff’s GOP opponent in the runoff election — only raised $463,744 and spent $279,767 as of March 29. In fact, all 17 other candidates combined raised less ($4.2 million) and spent less ($3.2 million) than Ossoff, as of March 29, FEC records show.

‘Big Loss’ for Democrats ?

On the Republican side, the White House press secretary called the election results “a big loss” for Democrats, saying the outcome “pretty much tracks” the results in the 2016 presidential election.

Spicer is correct, or nearly so, when comparing Trump’s narrow victory over Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton among voters in Georgia’s 6th District. Trump outperformed Clinton by about 1.5 percentage points in the district on Election Day.

But Spicer ignores the fact that Price, the former Republican congressman, won the House seat by 23 percentage points in November.

Price won reelection on Nov. 8 with 61.7 percent of the vote, compared with 38.3 percent for his Democratic opponent, Rodney Stooksbury, according to the official results. Although he lost badly, Stooksbury actually did better than any Democrat has done against Price since the Republican first was elected in 2004. Price won with 66 percent of the vote in 2014, 65 percent in 2012, 68 percent in 2008 and 72 percent in 2006. (He ran unopposed in 2010 and 2004.)

As mentioned earlier, Ossoff garnered 48.1 percent of the vote on April 18 in a crowded field — about 10 percentage points better than Stooksbury in 2016. Ossoff’s total was more than double that of the highest Republican vote-getter, but the 11 Republicans in the race captured a combined 51 percent of the vote. There were four other Democrats in the race as well, although combined those candidates accounted for less than 1 percent of the vote.

Spicer’s comparison of the recent special election results to the 2016 presidential election vote tallies in the 6th District is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. The fact is that Ossoff did exceedingly well in a district that has not been represented by a Democrat since 1979.