As far as I know, Rodney Stooksbury is an actual living human being. I have even spoken with someone who has spoken with someone who swears he exists.
Certain people, however, are convinced that Rodney Stooksbury does not exist. This is because, even though Rodney Stooksbury was the 2016 Democratic congressional candidate in Georgia’s 6th District, nobody could ever actually seem to find a photograph of the guy. Or a campaign website. Or any campaign material. Or anyone who has actually met Rodney Stooksbury. News outlets tried to track down Stooksbury, to no avail. According to one investigation, “when reporters went to his town house in Sandy Springs, no one answered the door. When they inquired with the neighbors, no one had heard of him. He apparently had run no campaign, and had raised no money.” Stooksbury, if not a literal ghost, might as well have been one. In November, shortly before leaving to become Donald Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Republican incumbent Tom Price was re-elected with approximately 62% of the vote. Rodney Stooksbury, whoever he was, came second. He received 38% of the vote.
This week, the special election to replace Price was held. Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff, 52 to 48, in the most expensive House race in the history of the United States. Over $56 million was spent in total, enough to prevent nearly 17,000 children from dying of malaria. Because Ossoff had positioned himself as a centrist, running mainly on a platform of reducing government spending, a lot of heated debate is now occurring among Democrats. What does this mean for the party? Should it heed the Berniecrats and appeal to the progressive base? If throwing money at a race won’t win it, what will? Might having actual principles and policies do the trick?
But though most of the discussion has been about how to interpret and recover from the result, some have taken a different perspective: Ossoff’s defeat was actually a victory, or at least not a loss. Former New York City Public Advocate Mark Green told Tucker Carlson that the race was a “tie” if looked at in the right way, because Tom Price had previously won by 24 points. Similar sentiments circulated online: this was a deep red district, Tom Price used to win it handily, even coming close should be extremely impressive. Scott Dworkin, leader of the Democratic Coalition Against Trump, tweeted: “That’s a win for #theresistance. Both Tom Price and Mitt Romney carried #ga06 by 23%. @ossoff lost by 5%” (Dworkin also inexplicably added the hashtag “#TrumpRussia” at the end, which at this point is apparently just a physical reflex among certain Democrats).
Clearly, though, these Democrats have never heard of a certain Rodney Stooksbury. (They are not alone in this.) One good reason why Tom Price beat his last opponent by 23 points was that his last opponent was functionally indistinguishable from a corpse or a bag of lettuce. Stooksbury spent precisely $0 on his campaign and has never been seen in public. Jon Ossoff had the entire national Democratic Party pulling out the stops for him, and flooded Atlanta television with ten million dollars in advertising. Drastically improving on the Stooksbury numbers should be no dazzling feat. (Although, somewhat hilariously, Stooksbury actually got more total votes than Ossoff, 124,917 to Ossoff’s 124,893. Granted, special elections have lower turnout, but good grief.)
In fact, the Stooksbury candidacy itself (or non-candidacy) is almost as interesting as Ossoff’s loss. Why would Democrats run a non-person to begin with? And how did he get nearly 40% of the vote without anyone even being certain that he existed?
The latter question is deeply mystifying. But the answer to the former is obvious: Democrats had long since given up on winning Georgia’s Sixth District. They didn’t field candidates there because there was no point to doing so. It was Republican territory, they weren’t going to win, so there would be no point directing resources into a doomed contest. Better to focus the party’s energy and money on tight races. (Indeed, in 2004 and 2010 the Democrats didn’t even bother putting up a ghost candidate, allowing Price to receive 100% of the vote.)
One can see the logic here. At the same time, we have a few additional facts to deal with: first, Georgia’s Sixth District turned out not to be an inevitable Republican seat, since it just had an incredibly competitive race. Second, Ron Snodsberry, a sack of potatoes, got 40% of the vote just by showing up on the ballot! If the title character from Weekend at Bernies can win Democrats 40% of the vote, we are not necessarily talking about an impossibly red district. We are certainly not talking about the kind of place that ought to just be instantly written off and abandoned.
In fact, the Sixth District of Georgia had a lot of people willing to vote Democratic. Yet in campaign cycle after campaign cycle, the party didn’t even field a real candidate, just handing the seat to the Republicans without even making them fight for it. That changed when they ran Ossoff, of course. But why weren’t they running people long before that? The only way you absolutely know you’re going to lose is if you don’t actually bother to try in the first place. Upsets do actually happen, and you need to be trying to make them happen (see, e.g., Paul Wellstone, the college professor who beat an incumbent Republican whose previous Democratic opponents had always performed… about the same as Rod Stooklesby).
Even if we accept the Democrats’ certitude that Price could never have been beaten, the idea that this should lead to not running a candidate is badly flawed political logic. In fact, it represents a gross misunderstanding of how political power is actually built. There are a number of very good reasons why it is a mistake to just sit out elections you think you will lose. Elections represent a major opportunity to build your party, spread your message, and garner local name recognition for your candidates. That’s true even if you don’t win. You get to tell people what you stand for, and you can organize them around issues that go well beyond elections. After the race is over, if you’re good at it, you will have built a stronger network of people who can work on issues locally and who will be even better prepared to fight the next race.
That’s why this Stooksbury nonsense is particularly galling in light of Ossoff’s defeat. Democrats had spent years not making any attempt to build an organizing infrastructure in the district, on the theory that it was pointless. Then, when an opportunity suddenly opened, they had to suddenly produce a real candidate and flood the district with as much money as possible. But imagine what would have happened if, instead of just lazily running Stooksbury after Stooksbury, Democrats had put some effort into trying to establish a serious well-organized presence there.
Giving up on districts also feels, to me, like treating voters with contempt. The Democratic Party is telling the large numbers of Democrats in the Sixth District that they are not useful enough to the party, so they will not even be given a meaningful choice as to who to vote for. In the Stooksbury race, one voter talked to by a local news team expressed disappointment and frustration that the Democratic candidate wasn’t even making an effort:
“I printed out my sample ballot, and I was going through and researching each candidate and I found that one of the two candidates had no information… I was shocked, in a Congressional race you’d think someone who was on the ballot would take it a bit more seriously.”
Here is a person who is being a model citizen, trying to make an informed choice as to which person to vote for. And yet the Party couldn’t even be bothered to give her so much as a photograph of its candidate. She’s a person who now has no reason to vote Democratic, no sense of what the Party stands for. A fifty-state strategy that does not “give up” on red states is not just sound politics (for one thing, it prevents Republicans from growing even stronger in areas where they are strong), but it also treats voters with the basic measure of respect that they are entitled to from a major political party.
Honestly, this should be embarrassing. That there should be any races like this in the country is the sign of a party in disarray. But there are plenty of places where this happens. (The online commenters who began pondering Stooksbury’s whereabouts swiftly identified another absentee Democrat in Georgia, Trisha McCracken in the 12th District.) The party leadership should be in disgrace. Nancy Pelosi, who has publicly refused to acknowledge that there are any systemic problems with the way Democrats do things, should have resigned long ago. The party has been hemorrhaging seats in Congress and state legislatures for years, losing power in state after state, with no plan for getting it back. Anyone anywhere near the top of the party who refuses to acknowledge how dire things are needs to be forced out immediately.
The Rodney Stooksbury situation is only one small exemplar of larger problems in the party that have made them unable to take advantage of Donald Trump’s unpopularity. They lack both a political strategy and actual likable candidates, and are fumbling aimlessly in their attempts to resist. (It might help if they developed an actual platform beyond “Something Trump something something Russia something.”)
All of this was on display in the Ossoff campaign, which, considering how much it spent on media, had stunningly incoherent and unpersuasive messaging. Ossoff’s television ads were breathtakingly bad. A lot of it was simply anti-Trump rather than pro-Ossoff, which might not have been the optimal strategy in a district that voted for Trump. One consists of Ossoff silently tweeting his campaign talking points at the viewer, before proceeding to chastise Donald Trump for, of all things, tweeting too much. One, focused on reducing government spending (Ossoff ran on a Republican platform), touts his exciting plans for “Consolidating Federal Data Centers” and “Eliminating Mobile Device Contracts,” two policies that have never swung a single vote in the history of U.S. politics. And some of them are barely even intelligible, such as one called “Connected,” in which Ossoff tells the audience how everything in the economy is, like, connected and stuff, man.
The entire Ossoff platform, to the extent that it can be discerned, seems to have been: “I went to Georgetown, have a haircut, and am not Donald Trump.” (Oh, and “Crack Down on Medicare Fraud,” which young progressives were sure to love.) For want of a personality, Ossoff simply lifted Barack Obama’s, shamelessly imitating Obama’s speaking style.
The campaign emails were even worse than the ads. One, under the subject line, “Accept defeat. Jon Ossoff lost,” resorted to threats and hysteria: “After emailing you again and again, we thought support would POUR in. But that’s NOT what happened… When we told you we’re being outspent 2-1? NOTHING. NOTHING is working!!!” It’s extraordinary to think how much Ossoff spent on this stuff, especially when we realize how much the race ended up costing per voter. Of course, Stooksbury got more votes than Ossoff and spent nothing, but if we look at other midterm races (rather than comparing the special election with a presidential election) the scale of the waste is made clear. The 2014 Democratic candidate against Price, Robert Montigel, got around 71,000 votes. Osssoff got about 53,000 more in 2017. At a price tag of $20-something million, that comes out around $400 per vote. (Donald Trump spent around $5 per vote, and winners of House races spend an average of $7 per vote.) If I were one of the 53,000, I would be livid that Ossoff had spent his money on videos of himself tweeting rather than just giving me the cash.
“The Democratic candidate in Georgia’s Sixth District does not actually exist” has to be one of my all-time favorite conspiracy theories. Democrats got 40% of the vote in November just by running a name, one that sounds more like an anagram or a Dickens character than a congressional candidate. But the Rodney Stooksbury story is not just hilarious: it’s emblematic of a party that has failed, giving up on the grassroots even as it loses political power all over the country. If Democrats are going to win back the government, they’re going to field better candidates than vaporous spectral nonentities like Jon Ossoff. They’re going to need people. Real people, with real agendas. Ghosts just won’t do.
[UPDATE: I have found new evidence that Tricia McCracken, of Georgia’s 12th District, is an actual person. Back in 2010, a Georgia political blog was puzzling over the McCracken mystery when she was on the ballot for Lt. Governor. As one person reported “a number of high-profile Democrats did major research into her, and turned up nothing. NOTHING. Not a picture, not a website, not a bio. NOTHING.” But one of the bloggers actually met someone claiming to be McCracken at a breakfast! The meeting… did not go well. The local political operatives who spoke with her came away horrified. She was running, she said, as a “physical conservative.” Not “fiscal.” Physical. Then, after appearing at the breakfast, McCracken does not appear to have ever been seen again. Running McCracken in the 12th District is especially egregious, because this was a seat that Democrats had actually HELD until 2014! For 10 years, Democrat John Barrow had represented the district before the Republicans successfully unseated him. Two years after his loss, Democrats had already stopped contesting the seat. In November, McCracken received nearly 100,000 votes despite having been spotted in public only once and not knowing the difference between “fiscal” and “physical.” ]