What we learned from Tuesday’s special congressional election in Georgia is that there is no magical solution to the country’s Trump problem. This will be a long fight.
Republican Karen Handel’s victory over Democrat Jon Ossoff was not an endorsement of the president. It was a personal and party success achieved despite him.
Democrats are, well, blue because a loss is a loss. You can measure their disappointment by imagining the triumphalism we’d be hearing had Ossoff prevailed. But nothing that happened should make Republicans feel secure about their hold on the House of Representatives. Nationalizing the swings against them in the special elections held for GOP seats this year would likely deprive them of control in 2018.
The key for Handel was the time she had between April’s first round of voting (which Ossoff led in an open primary with 48.1 percent, just short of the majority he needed to settle matters then) and the second (in which Ossoff’s vote almost precisely matched his earlier share).
“Ossoff’s problem is that he didn’t win the first round,” Brian Fallon, senior adviser to Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, said in an interview. “The longer this race was in the national spotlight, the more money it drew from the Republicans, and the more they were able to consolidate their base.”
And while Democrats were mourning in Georgia Tuesday night, they almost stole a House seat in South Carolina where Archie Parnell came within about 2,800 votes and 3 percentage points of defeating Republican Ralph Norman.
In races without the national focus and Fort Knox-level spending, energized anti-Trump voters appeared to turn out at far higher rates than dispirited Republicans. Thus did Democrats sharply cut the Republicans’ 2016 margins in Kansas and Montana districts earlier this year. The moral for GOP strategists: They face real threats in less hospitable territory. This also suggests that Democrats should broaden their aspirations beyond suburban areas seen as especially hostile to President Trump.
Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant and Handel strategist, underscored her success in turning the contest into a normal partisan choice. “The voters decided that Karen Handel was a better representative of their values, their interests and their perspective than Jon Ossoff,” he told me. “Karen Handel ran a relentlessly localized campaign that focused on that perspective.”
Notice those words: “relentlessly localized.” To pull this off Handel had to keep her distance from Trump. Ayres put the matter diplomatically: “The president structured the broader environment but didn’t determine the outcome of this particular race.” Exactly.
Yet if Trump was unpopular in the district, his approval rating, Fallon said, was “6 or 7 points higher” there than his standing nationwide. Trump was thus disliked enough to give Ossoff a chance, but not so unpopular that “a screechingly anti-Trump campaign,” as Fallon put it, would have gone over well.
However, Fallon did see a lost opportunity. Ossoff, he said, could have run much more forcefully against the House Republican health care bill, particularly its unpopular provisions that would undercut protections for those with pre-existing conditions. Paradoxically, if the Georgia’s result encourages the Senate to join in passing a deeply flawed Obamacare repeal bill, it could hurt the GOP in the long run.
Handel also turned Ossoff’s residency about two miles outside the district into a cultural argument that his heart was actually 2,100 miles away, in San Francisco. “He’s just not one of us,” her ads said, and this message was reinforced by tying him to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi – and perhaps inadvertently by Ossoff’s own promise to “grow metro Atlanta’s economy into the Silicon Valley of the South.” Pelosi’s enduring role as a Republican punching bag revived debate over whether her leadership is an electoral drag on the party, or if she is simply a convenient (female) symbol for attacks on liberalism that the GOP would level with or without her.
Everybody uses special elections to ratify whatever they thought before a single vote was counted. Do Democrats need a compelling economic message? Yes. Would the existence of such a message have won Ossoff this race? Probably not. Did Georgia make Republicans feel better and Democrats worse? Sure. Does this mean that Trump and the GOP are out of the woods? Not in the least.
Trump’s foes hoped that a district in Georgia would strike a decisive blow against him. But miracles rarely happen in politics, and suburban Atlanta Republicans were loyal enough to their party to decide that it wasn’t their job to deliver one.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.