Georgia’s Progressive Renaissance

Things are changing in the 6th District, and there’s no going back.

Jon Ossoff
Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to his supporters in Georgia in a special election to replace now–HHS Secretary Tom Price’s House seat on Tuesday.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

FULTON COUNTY, Georgia—Bhavani Saravanan, a 52-year-old woman I met at Jon Ossoff’s election night party in Georgia on Tuesday, emigrated from India 25 years ago and has been a U.S. citizen for years. But she said that Nov. 9 is the day she truly became an American. “Until Mr. Trump won, I was an immigrant,” she told me. “The minute he won, I [said] no, I’m an American. This is my country. I will fight for it.” Though she had never been involved in politics before, she volunteered for the Ossoff campaign and rallied every Indian person she knew, no matter how apolitical. “The minute I attended Jon’s first meeting, I sent them messages: This is the person we’re all voting for,” she said. “Yesterday I sent them reminders. Today they all let me know they voted.”

Ossoff, running for a House seat that’s been in Republican hands since 1979, won 48.1 percent of the special election vote on Tuesday. That beat even the most optimistic early polls, but was short of the 50 percent he needed to win outright. He will now proceed to a runoff against Republican Karen Handel, best known outside of Georgia for resigning from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation amid a national uproar caused by her decision to end the organization’s grants to Planned Parenthood. (She is the author of a book titled Planned Bullyhood.) The vote is June 20, and it will be an uphill climb in an area when Republicans outnumber Democrats.

Nevertheless, it’s not just Democratic spin to say that a remarkable political transformation is happening in Georgia’s 6th District: an affluent, highly educated suburb of Atlanta. Nearly overnight, progressive organizing has become the center of social life for thousands of previously disengaged people in the area. Whether or not the movement is enough to swing this election, Republicans may never again be able to win local offices here without a fight. And the intense activity in the 6th District is a sign of how the anti-Trump resistance is building a new, locally rooted progressive infrastructure nationwide.

It’s important to point out that nothing about Tuesday night was a victory for Trump, even if Press Secretary Sean Spicer was spinning it on Wednesday as a loss for Democrats. Before Trump’s presidency, the seat had long been safely Republican; now–Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price won it by 23 points just this past November. Ossoff has been able to mount a credible run because of widespread revulsion towards Trump.

On the Republican side, Handel was one of the candidates least associated with the president. One of the aggressively pro-Trump candidates in the race, Bob Gray, attacked her disloyalty to Trump in hopes of beating her for second place. He ended up 9 points behind her, with 10.8 percent of the vote. Other candidates who tied themselves to the president did even worse. “[D]on’t believe the White House spin that this was not a rebuke of the President,” wrote the anti-Trump conservative Erick Erickson. “The more closely aligned a candidate was with President Trump, the worse that candidate did.”

Meanwhile, a tightly networked progressive movement has sprung up in the district with little help from national Democrats. Last year Elizabeth Murphy, a 35-year-old mother of three, wanted to get involved in politics to help stop Trump but said it was hard to figure out how. Progressive groups, she said, were “nonexistent here in Cobb County. There was no infrastructure.” That all changed once Trump was elected, horrifying many 6th District women. “Since Nov. 9, the fire and the energy has come into this area like I’ve never seen before,” Murphy said. Before the election, a typical Democratic Party meeting would draw 25 or 30 people. “They now have 400 to 500 people attending in one county. It’s incredible.” (Ossoff ultimately won 41 percent in the parts of Cobb that fall in the district, 8 points higher than the Democrat did this past fall and 1 point better than Clinton’s total.)

As Ossoff readily acknowledges, women are leading the progressive renaissance that made his near-victory possible. “This is a story about women in this community,” he said in his election night speech. “Those strong and determined women who have picked us all up, who are carrying us forward, who are going to carry us to victory tonight or in June.” Women lead the local Indivisible chapter. In March, two women formed a women’s group, called Pave It Blue, devoted to running progressive candidates in local races—contests where, in the past, Republicans often ran unopposed. A private, invite-only Facebook group called Liberal Moms of Roswell and Cobb, or LMRC, has swelled to 1,700 members. You see LMRC magnets on cars and minivans all over town, and its members have developed a ritual: When they come across an LMRC decal on a parked car, they turn it upside-down, so when the driver returns, she’ll know a friend was there.

A first-time candidate and LMRC member named Christine Triebsch ran for the state Senate seat vacated by one of the Republican candidates in Tuesday’s congressional election. Like Ossoff, she came in first and will proceed to a runoff.

This surge of progressive activity marks a social sea change in an area when many Democrats said they once kept their political sympathies quiet, assuming they were alone among their conservative neighbors. “I felt like I was a closeted Democrat,” said Rebecca Sandberg, 43, who I met on Monday as she stood with a cluster of other women holding Ossoff signs near a busy intersection. “The label ‘liberal’ always seemed like a bad thing. And now I’m realizing, the more we have this community, that it’s actually a good thing. Being surrounded by all of these ladies in this area—and men, too—has really empowered me to be more involved.” She’d joined Pave It Blue and become a precinct captain for the Ossoff campaign.

These newly minted progressive activists are drawing on the organizing skills they’ve learned in the PTA and the ties they’ve forged to each other as parents. I was introduced to Saravanan by Tricia Madden, 39, who helped coordinate LMRC volunteers for Ossoff; they knew each other because their kids went to preschool together. “The woman that’s in charge of the school auction and the PTA knows the room mom, [who] is also the woman that’s in charge of the homeowners association,” said Madden. “Those are also the people who are going to volunteer. This is years and years of built-up relationships. You can’t replicate that.”

Indeed you can’t; it’s the reason Democrats have long been so weak in so much of the country. Conservatives have had churches that helped convert social networks into grass-roots political groups. But as unions collapsed, Democrats lost their social base: the thing that knit politically like-minded people into a community. That is changing as outraged people, and particularly outraged women, come together to resist the existential insult of Trump. “The network and the community that I’ve found is enormous,” said Murphy. “If I need anything, people are right there for me. We’re always helping each other. And it’s not just politics. We identify with each other’s values and our thoughts and our ideas.”

I kept asking Ossoff volunteers if they worried that the momentum would dissipate before the runoff. Again and again, I heard the same thing: Tuesday’s election was practice. “This is going to last,” Murphy told me. “Once you get a taste of the activist lifestyle, I don’t think you can just put that back into the bag.”