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As Jon Ossoff Loses Georgia Special Election, Where Do Democrats Go from Here in Challenging GOP?

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In the most expensive congressional race in history, Republican Karen Handel has defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff in a special election in Georgia. We go to Atlanta for response and look at the role of gerrymandering in shaping the outcome of the race. We speak to Georgia state Senator Nan Orrock and Rev. Raphael Warnock, the chair of the New Georgia Project, which conducts voter registration and outreach to the state’s growing population of color. He is also the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, which was the spiritual home of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Video squareStoryJun 21, 2017Katrina vanden Heuvel Cautions Against Overreading into Ossoff's Loss in Georgia Special Election
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Georgia, where the Republicans have pulled off a victory in the most expensive congressional race in history. In a special election in Georgia’s 6th District, Republican Karen Handel won nearly 53 percent of the vote, defeating her challenger, Democrat Jon Ossoff, to be—to fill the seat left vacant after Tom Price resigned to become secretary of health and human services. The candidates and outside groups spent more than $55 million on the race, a record-shattering amount. While the seat has been held by a Republican for decades, Democrats were hoping to pull off an upset in the suburban Atlanta district where President Trump’s approval rating is just 35 percent. This marks the fourth congressional race Democrats have lost since the election of Trump. Speaking Tuesday night, Handel thanked President Trump.

REP.-ELECT KAREN HANDEL: I need to also thank Speaker Ryan and the House leadership and so many of the members across this country who also united to help us hold the 6th. And a special thanks to the president of the United States.

HANDEL SUPPORTERS: Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!

AMY GOODMAN: Karen Handel is the former secretary of state of Georgia. She made national headlines in 2012 when she led an effort at the breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood. She later resigned from the organization, after the board voted to restore the money following public outcry. On Tuesday night, Handel’s challenger, 30-year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff, also addressed supporters.

JON OSSOFF: And we showed the world that in places where no one thought it was even possible to fight, we could fight. We showed them what courage and kindness and humility are capable of. We showed them that we can still build coalitions of people who may not see eye to eye on everything, but rather than demonizing each other, we find common ground to move forward. And that’s the only way this country will move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Atlanta, where we’re joined by two guests. The Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock is senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, which was the spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He’s also the chair of the New Georgia Project. Nan Orrock is also with us, a Democratic state senator in Georgia. Her Senate District 36 includes downtown Atlanta.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Dr. Raphael Warnock. What happened in Atlanta? It was very close, but in the end the Republican pulled it out, and Karen Handel, in her acceptance speech, in her victory speech last night, thanked President Trump as people chanted "Trump! Trump!"

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Well, good to be here with you, Amy, even on a day like this. We have to play for the long game. We were very focused on this election. Indeed, the whole country has been focused on this special election here in Georgia. I do think we have to keep in mind that this has been a solid Republican district for a very long time, for about four decades. So this was an uphill journey from the beginning. The fact that this was actually a real race, that this was—that there was serious movement on the left, can only be accounted for with reference to Donald Trump. So, there is deep unrest in the country. His approval rating is very low, even in that district. I found it very interesting and curious that Karen Handel virtually ran away from the president during the campaign and ran toward him last night during her victory speech.

So, we’ll continue to make the case. As chair of the New Georgia Project, we’re very focused on expanding the electorate. I believe that our social vision will be as narrow as the electorate is. And what we’ve witnessed over the last few years, especially after the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, is the effort of Republican legislatures all across the country to make it very difficult for black, brown, poor people, old people, young people to register and to vote. And that’s the work of the New Georgia Project, and that’s the work we’ll continue to do in the next several months, even the next few years. We’ve registered 215,000 new voters since 2014. We hope to register about a million by the end of the decade.

AMY GOODMAN: Nan Orrock, your response to what took place in this staggeringly, staggeringly expensive congressional race, the most expensive race in the history—congressional race in the history of this country?

SEN. NAN ORROCK: We are, of course, disappointed, but at the same time very mindful, as Pastor Warnock said, that this has been a deep red district since 1979. And for Jon Ossoff to even attempt to score in this congressional district is remarkable, and his performance is remarkable. The activity that we saw on the ground, the outpouring, it awakened the electorate in the Congressional District 6 that thought it had nowhere to go. The diversity of his support and the intensity and enthusiasm—I can’t remember when I’ve seen such an enthusiastic, sustained effort here in this state.

And the way I look at it, Amy, is that, no, we didn’t take the seat last night. We worked in a way, and Jon Ossoff presented a candidacy, that demanded that the Republicans go all out, leave no—no holds barred, to take the seat, as they did last night with a very flawed candidate, frankly, Karen Handel, who, as secretary of state, presided over blocking people from voting. She had the Justice Department reprimanding her for her attempt to eliminate voters from the rolls. And I have to say, we’ve had a battle here in Georgia around access to the ballot. We were one of the first states. In 2005, the Republican-controlled Legislature, with a Republican governor, Sonny Perdue, put into law a voter ID that was just onerous. We’ve sued. We’ve fought about it. It did have the effect of waking people up, to say, "They’re not going to take my right to vote." And it’s—we’re continuing to battle to bring out the electorate here that’s going to turn this state blue.

And I see last night—I see this prolonged, months-long battle over this, of trying to flip the 6th, as a real laying the groundwork for, as a ladies out there in Cobb are saying, the Democratic women that have organized themselves into Pave It Blue, we’re going to pave it blue. And you’re going to see, right in this congressional district, winning seats. We’re going to take seats from Republicans in elections for next year’s General Assembly seats, Senate and House, because of the energy, the infrastructure and the hope that has been restored in that district that there’s somebody else out there besides this deep red GOP, anti-people sort of agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: This was the district of Newt Gingrich, before Dr. Price, and he won by what? Something like 23 percent—

SEN. NAN ORROCK: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —when he won, but then he resigned to become the secretary of health and human services. Romney won by something like that, you know, percentage, 23 percent more. But Trump, in 2016, won by something like 1—just over 1 percent.

SEN. NAN ORROCK: That’s right. That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet you have Karen Handel thanking Trump and the crowd chanting "Trump!" Has there been a change in these few months?

SEN. NAN ORROCK: I think the Republicans are embattled. This is—the administration that we’ve witnessed over these last months, I mean, everybody in Washington in the administration is lawyering up right now. And I think that in the deep red Trump supporter base, they’re rallying around him, but that base is shrinking. That’s what the numbers tell us. That base is shrinking.

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Well, and I think we have to keep in mind that part of what Karen Handel won for herself last night is the opportunity to have to run again in the fall of 2018. I’m not about to predict what will happen for that race. That’s a long time off. But her thanking Donald Trump might be the basis of an interesting commercial in 2018, as we witness the scandals of the Trump administration unfold. And we’ll see where that goes. But she might live to regret those words.

AMY GOODMAN: But in terms of what took place, Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, the issue of gerrymandering, can you talk about what’s happening in Atlanta, in Georgia?

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Yeah. Well, as the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court a few summers ago, many of us have been really having to fight the good fight on the ground. As Senator Orrock pointed out, even before that happened, in 2005, Georgia has the distinction of leading the pack with making it hard for people to vote. So we’ve been fighting this issue for a long time.

You know that about a month ago the Supreme Court ruled that racial gerrymandering in the case of North Carolina was unconstitutional. Ironically, it was Clarence Thomas who cast the deciding vote, decided with the majority. But this is going to be a real fight in the days ahead. You don’t get people really excited talking about gerrymandering. It’s not the sexiest issue. But it is one of the most consequential issues facing our democracy.

There is a way in which we have got to get the people’s voice back. A lot of us are very focused and concerned about this administration and asking the question, "Have we turned into a kleptocracy?" But beyond the kind of crude way in which—you know, we’re not sure what the Trump administration is up to and what kinds of resources that they may be trying to extract from our democracy. In a real sense, the people’s voices have been stolen a long time ago. We’re living in a kind of kleptocracy.

I don’t—I’m not excited about the fact that this was the most expensive congressional race in history. There’s a disconnect between what the people want and what we get. How is it that most Americans want reasonable gun reform, but we can’t get reasonable gun reform legislation in our country? It is because of the outsize voice of corporatist interests, the gun lobby, too much money in our elections, racial gerrymandering. All of these issues, we’ll have to fight. And the way we’re fighting it in the New Georgia Project is to register as many people as we can. We think that part of the answer to voter suppression is massive voter mobilization and registration, while also addressing these other public policy issues, at the state Capitol and otherwise.

AMY GOODMAN: Karen Handel is known around the country not so much as secretary of state, the past secretary state of Georgia, Nan Orrock, but as the woman who tried to stop the funding of Planned Parenthood when she was at Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. There was a massive outcry across the country. She was tossed out. But how does this—what kind of omen is this for Planned Parenthood? Because right now you have the Senate healthcare plan that’s supposedly going to be released on Thursday morning. Interestingly, McConnell only announced this after the results were in, in Georgia, leading many to believe he understood this is quite controversial. And, of course, a part of that is the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood. What kind of message does this send?

SEN. NAN ORROCK: Well, you know, it’s very interesting. I was with the Center for Reproductive Rights last week in Washington with women legislators and activists from around the country. And the polling numbers are very startling. Over 40 percent of Republicans support the right to abortion and maintaining Roe v. Wade. And the numbers are astronomical among Democrats. It’s another example, as Pastor Warnock said, of where the mass of people are on one side of this issue, and yet you have this narrow, reactionary, anti-people agenda that’s being driven by the GOP.

And they have been well served by gerrymandering. We really launched and mobilized against them in the session here this—several months ago here in the General Assembly to smash their bill to reapportion. You know, they go around now, and they’re not satisfied with reapportioning every 10 years after the census. Whenever one of their people are in trouble, they go in and want to tweak the district and move African-American voters, move Democratic voters out of that district. And they tried that with a bill this session. They called a surprise meeting at 8:00 in the morning with not even 24 hours’ notice. And do you know? We packed that room. Almost 200 people packed into that room. And they folded their tents, and that bill did not become law. But so, there’s more attention being paid now to this outlandish gerrymandering and the way that they are controlling seats. And, as has been demonstrated, it makes for polarized politics, when people don’t have to come together in the middle to look for solutions.

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Racial gerrymandering, placing polling stations in police stations, the kinds of abuse we witnessed in Quitman County—I would encourage your viewers to google "Quitman County" and "voting rights." If you read that story, it will read like something out of the 1950s. And this was literally just a couple years ago here in Georgia, as the NAACP and other grassroots organizers simply focused on registering people to vote—in some cases, their own family members. One woman spoke and signed for her father, who was unable to sign the application. I believe he was blind or something. But, literally, people facing criminal charges—

SEN. NAN ORROCK: That’s right.

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: —for trying to give voice to ordinary people. So we’ve got to build a big tent, a broad coalition—

SEN. NAN ORROCK: Yeah.

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: —of women, poor people, minorities—

AMY GOODMAN: On that issue—

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: —young people. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: On that issue of a broad tent, do you think, Dr. Raphael Warnock, that Ossoff represented—I mean, is this not just a battle between Republicans and Democrats, but the heart of the Democratic Party? Right now, massive issue in the country is the issue of healthcare. He was opposed to single-payer healthcare. Many felt he was running away from a progressive Democratic platform, as he ran against the Republican candidate. Do you think this is a message to the Democratic Party, almost like the Hillary-Bernie Sanders divide, that they’re going in the wrong direction?

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Well, I’ll let the politicians get into the mix of how to, you know, win an election. I’m a progressive. These are the issues that I’ll continue to fight for. I believe that it’s a shame that in the richest country in the world, we don’t have universal healthcare. But it’s not just a moral issue. It’s really impractical. We continue to try in the United States to pull something off that hasn’t worked anywhere, and that is this idea that you take healthcare and throw it into the marketplace. I think the market is good for some things, but this idea that the market is a panacea, a cure-all for all ills, is a kind of religious doctrine and fanaticism that I don’t embrace as a person of faith. I mean, we bring a critical eye even to our faith. But there are some folk who seem to think that the market is the answer to everything. And yet, in order to get here, we drove through streets that all of us pay for. We turn on our water fountain, and we were assured that that water was protected, because there are some things that we have to do together. And healthcare is something that we ought to make sure that everybody has access to.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, finally, let me put that question to Nan Orrock, Democratic state senator in Georgia representing downtown Atlanta. Politico is saying the biggest beneficiary of the progressive resistance opposes a push for single-payer healthcare or hiking income taxes. What about this? What about people saying that the Democrat ran away from core Democratic values and that this isn’t really a referendum on where the Democrats could be in this country?

SEN. NAN ORROCK: Well, I am not going to Monday morning quarterback on Jon Ossoff’s race, which was a remarkable race, an incredible gain from where the last Republican that ran was 22 points up, and we were two points lower than 50 percent, in a race that was not supposed to ever even be feasible. He had to win Republican votes. He won, I believe, one out of 10 Republican votes, took the undecideds, you know, the independents—at least split them—and fought to expand the Democratic electorate. I talked last night, Amy, with a young Latina woman who was—actually had fought every day in this campaign, and she was in no way downcast. She said, "We did incredible grassroots organizing, and we did special teams out to different communities and seeking out the different ethnicities that are in this very district, that’s very diverse." Now, let me say this: Georgia is over 30 percent African-American citizenship. This district is 25 percent people of color.

REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Right. Right.

SEN. NAN ORROCK: Twenty-five, 75, and we did that kind of performance there. Things are on the move. Things are changing. I was speaking last night with our candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams, who’s going to mount a remarkable campaign, is already out there on the campaign trail. And we’re going to see history made in Georgia.

The other thing is that Georgia used to be totally in the backwater when it came to national politics. We didn’t have Obama money in this state, we didn’t have any Clinton money to speak of in this state, in these last two big presidential contests. But yet and still, we were one of the most purple of the red states. This campaign has continued the trajectory of waking up the nation about coming to Georgia and working here to turn this state around. We’re in a state where the governor didn’t expand Medicare. We have—Medicaid expansion was never done here. We have a huge number, one of the top numbers, of uninsured people in this state. And I think the future is bright. The future is blue in Georgia, at the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker.

But what I saw in this campaign—and I had close family members that worked in it every day, got up and went out and knocked on doors all day long—the enthusiasm, the layers of people. If you could have been at that hotel last night, you couldn’t get in. The cars were backed up. I mean, you never would have expected that in that district. And so, people are awake in Georgia, and we’re moving in the right direction. And we’re going to see that in next year’s statewide elections for these top offices.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Nan Orrock, Democratic state senator in Georgia, and Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock of the Ebenezer Baptist Church.

SEN. NAN ORROCK: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! Thank you so much for being there. When we come back, Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation, on what this race means and broader issues around the country. As the Republicans secretly craft a healthcare bill in the Senate—it will be revealed in the next few days—what does this mean for this country? And other issues. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "Shook Ones, Part II" by Mobb Deep. Queens rapper Prodigy died Tuesday in Las Vegas of complications from sickle cell anemia, which he’s been battling since birth.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel Cautions Against Overreading into Ossoff's Loss in Georgia Special Election

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