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Georgia Congressional District Holds Closely Watched Special Election


The American political world is watching the state of Georgia today. There's a special election in the Atlanta suburbs to fill the congressional seat that was held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. And normally a special election in one state wouldn't be such a big deal, but this one is different. It is seen as a test of how well Democrats could do in the 2018 congressional midterms. And as a result, it has attracted a lot of money, more political money than any House race in U.S. history.

Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel have together spent more than $50 million trying to win this seat. We reached out to both candidates. Karen Handel was unable to join us today due to scheduling. The Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, is with us on the line now from his district in Tucker, Ga. Mr. Ossoff, thanks so much for being with us.

JON OSSOFF: Good morning, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: This district hasn't been held by a Democrat since 1979, which is something I'm sure you know. What makes you think you can change that?

OSSOFF: Well, you know, growing up here, I never found it to be a very partisan community. I think that it's a community of kind, decent people who want effective representation, who look at candidates as individuals rather than merely as proxies for the major parties. And with this atmosphere of scandal and disarray and gridlock in Washington, folks are hungry for some fresh leadership that's going to be committed to delivering results rather than getting mired in the gridlock.

MARTIN: If you don't win, there is an argument that this could have a knock-on effect for your party which is already struggling to find its footing after 2016 in a series of really big losses. Do you see the election in your state today as an indicator of the Democratic Party's overall health?

OSSOFF: Well, with all due respect, I'll leave that to national strategists and to pundits. I'm proud of the coalition that the campaign has built, which includes Democrats, independents and Republicans who want to see results for metro Atlanta's economy, who want to see a commitment to bipartisan results, will improve access to health care and make it more affordable and who want to see a commitment to accountability in Washington not as a partisan matter but as a matter of public interest.

And there are folks from across the political spectrum who are fed up with politicians in Washington who are concerned exclusively with notching partisan wins and not delivering anything for the people they're elected to represent.

MARTIN: How do you feel about the money that's been spent on this campaign? The Atlanta Journal Constitution published a calculation that said you and your opponent have spent or reserved over $40 million for TV and radio ads. Does that disturb you? What does it say about our political culture?

OSSOFF: The role of money in politics is a major problem and particularly the role of unchecked anonymous money. There have been super PACs in Washington who have been putting up tens of millions of dollars of attack ads in air for months now. When you have that kind of an environment, it's necessary to raise the resources to fight back. I'm proud of the fact that my campaign has raised that money in small-dollar contributions, on average less than $50.

MARTIN: Although, it was your party that started the big spending. The Atlanta Journal Constitution also found your campaign and groups supporting it spent about $2 million more in ad spending than Handel during the runoff.

OSSOFF: Well, the overwhelming majority of money spent supporting my opponent has come from super PACs in Washington. And the overwhelming amount of money that's been spent supporting my candidacy has come from small-dollar donors. But there's no question that money in politics is a major problem, which is one of the reasons that we need campaign finance reform so that candidates and campaigns will spend more time talking to voters and discussing the issues and less time raising money.

MARTIN: We already mentioned the Democrats took major losses in 2016. What are you doing that's different? How does your party need to change in order to start winning, and how is that affecting your message?

OSSOFF: Well, look. Like I said - and with all due respect, you know, I'm not a national strategist. But I know what's been working here, and that's been a focus on policy objectives that can deliver improved quality of life for people in this community. There's a lot of hammering.

MARTIN: Isn't that what Democrats in Georgia have been saying for a generation or so?

OSSOFF: Well, look. I mean when folks want to see more affordable access to health care, when a community like metro Atlanta has the potential to become an economic powerhouse that's the envy of the rest of the country, with a thriving tech sector, biotech medical research sectors and the opportunity to become one of the world's great commercial capitals, what folks are hungry for is a commitment to results that will deliver. That kind of improved standard of living, that kind of prosperity and opportunity - that's what my campaign's been focused on, not on the national political circus.

MARTIN: John Ossoff is the Democratic candidate for the open House seat in today's special election in the 6th District of Georgia. We did reach out to his opponent, Karen Handel. She was unable to join us this morning. Mr. Ossoff, thanks so much for your time this morning.

OSSOFF: Thanks, and I encourage everyone to get to the polls. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.