Republican Karen Handel will make residency the central issue of the runoff
Federal laws says Members of Congress only need to live in the state they represent
Correction: This post has been updated to accurately reflect the date of the June 20 runoff.
Democrat Jon Ossoff very nearly won the special election to replace Department of Health and Human Services Director Tom Price on Tuesday night, coming within a point and a half of the 50 percent he needed to claim the district outright.
But, he came up short. Which means that he and second place finisher Karen Handel (R) will spend the next two months bashing each others brains out – figuratively speaking – in advance of the June 20 runoff.
And Handel seems to have already decided what her main attack on Ossoff will be: He’s not really from here.
“The people of this district want a congressman that they know, that they trust, someone who has a real track record,” Handel told “New Day” Wednesday morning. “They’re not interested in someone who doesn’t even live in the district, someone who has a really thin resume and very lacking in experience.”
He doesn’t even live in the district! How could he possibly represent us!
It’s worth noting here that a member of Congress doesn’t have to live in the district they represent. Under federal law, you only have to live in the same state. In fact, as the Los Angeles Times documented in 2015, there are at least five California House members who don’t live in the district they now represent in Congress.
So, Ossoff isn’t breaking any rules at all by living outside of the district. But that doesn’t mean that Handel’s attack won’t work.
Ossoff, on election day, still didn’t have a very good answer for why he doesn’t live in the district and, therefore, can’t vote for himself. Here’s how Ossoff responded to the question on “New Day” on Tuesday:
“I grew up in this district. I grew up in this community. No one knew there was going to be an election coming. I have been living with Alicia my girlfriend of twelve years down by Emory University where she is a full time medical student. As soon as she concludes her medical training I will be back into the district where I grew up, but I want to support her and her career and do right by her.”
It’s not the worst answer! But Ossoff looked decidedly uncomfortable giving it. And when”New Day” co-host Alisyn Camerota pushed him on it, he repeated his first answer almost verbatim:
“I am a mile and a half down the street to support Alicia while she finishes medical school. It’s something I’ve been very transparent about. I am proud to be supporting her career. As soon as she finishes her medical training, I will be ten minutes back up to road where I grew up.”
In fact, Ossoff was surprisingly truthful – particularly in his first answer. “No one knew there was going to be an election coming,” he said. Which is right. While Price was rumored as a potential Trump cabinet pick, very few people – Ossoff, my guess, included – thought the Republican nominee had a chance to win the White House. If Ossoff could jump in a time machine, he would of course go back and rent a place in the district or just live with his parents – whose house in in the 6th – for the duration of the race.
The problem for Ossoff is 1) We don’t have time machines (yet!) and 2) his not living in the district plays into broader themes that work well for Handel.
Ossoff is 30 years old but looks younger. Ninety-five percent of his funding in the primary came from out-of-state donors. Actress Alyssa Milano was a vocal advocate for him; actor Samuel L. Jackson recorded a radio ad for Ossoff.
Add those factors to Ossoff not living in the district and you have a potentially potent political cocktail: This guy’s just not one of us.
That’s certainly the message President Trump was trying to send with his tweet Wednesday morning.
Ossoff will have to fight like hell against that caricature over the coming two months. He loses if the race is between a longtime Georgian in Handel and a political opportunist in Ossoff. He needs the race to be about the chance to send a fresh face to Washington to clean up some of the messes Trump has already created.
That would be an easier case to make if Ossoff just lived in the district.