In the aftermath of Georgia’s highly anticipated special congressional election, expect to see many people who said the race would matter a lot downplay it while some who dismissed its importance—such as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in response to a question about whether it was a referendum on President Trump—suddenly play it up.
Republican Karen Handel won Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District fairly easily (she ran ahead of Trump’s 2016 victory margin) though not overwhelmingly (she significantly underperformed former Rep. Tom Price, a Republican who is now Secretary of Health and Human Services). This leaves the Democrats 0-3 in special elections in Republican-held districts they have tried to contest this year, even in a political climate that is problematic for the GOP.
Georgia was their best shot. They had an attractive candidate in 30-year-old Jon Ossoff who was moderate enough to be a fit for this suburban Atlanta district yet also sufficiently liberal to raise tens of millions from energized anti-Trump donors. (Though he will now be criticized for both being insufficiently liberal and inadequately moderate, for reasons we will review later.)
Although Georgia Six has been safely in Republican hands since Newt Gingrich’s freshman year in the House back in 1979, it only went for Trump a little over 1 point in 2016. It contained many affluent Republican leaners who aren’t enthusiastic about the president and who Democrats hoped could be enticed to switch sides or stay home.
Ossoff nearly won the first round of balloting back in April, running nearly 30 points ahead of Handel and coming within 2 points of avoiding a runoff altogether. He until fairly recently led in the polls. He outraised Handel, who required national Republican groups to come to her rescue.
So what went wrong? Some Democrats would argue that Ossoff tried to play it too safe, running on a Democratic Leadership Council playbook that might have worked in the Sunbelt in the 1980s and 1990s but is unresponsive to today’s populist mood. He didn’t campaign much against the Republican healthcare bill and didn’t mention Trump as much as might have been expected.
Earlier this year, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the progressive darling of the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, declined to vouch for Ossoff’s liberalism. “I don’t know,” he told the Wall Street Journal when asked. “Some Democrats are progressive, and some Democrats are not.”
Sanders later endorsed Ossoff, saying it was “imperative” that Democrats win the Georgia House race as a “first step in fighting back against Trump’s reactionary agenda.” Nevertheless, expect the “liberal enough” question to be re-litigated all over again in the coming days.
A number of signs point to the opposite conclusion, however: Ossoff was unable to overcome the conventional left-right split in his district, which did not resolve in his favor. His caution on a number of hot-button Democratic issues was reflective of what the private polling was telling his campaign. Swing voters simply proved more ambivalent about topics that have progressives outraged.
Many of Ossoff’s donors were liberals living outside the district, much like the candidate himself. Republicans, including a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, tied him to Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader and former speaker conservative voters don’t want to see reclaim the gavel. They also tied him to the Hollywood left, including timeworn bogeymen (or boegywomen) like Jane Fonda and Trump-era ones like Rosie O’Donnell and Kathy Griffin.
Tip O’Neill said all politics is local. While there is still some truth to that, a lot of politics is now national—and a good bit of it is now identity politics. All of these factors cut against Ossoff in this conservative district.
Handel started gaining on Ossoff once national GOP-friendly groups swooped in to help her. It’s possible events like the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise also galvanized rank-and-file Republicans.
Taken together, the special elections have to temper Democratic enthusiasm about 2018. Yes, every race is different and it is easy to over-extrapolate from these results. But the relevance of these contests to future campaigns tends to be self-fulfilling: wins help fundraising and candidate recruitment, losses don’t.
Nothing happened in the last three races that would make a prospective Democratic candidate who doesn’t expect to raise $23 million or have their opponent commit assault the night before the election feel more bullish about their prospects.
At the same time, all three races happened in fairly Republican areas and two of them (Montana and Kansas’ fourth congressional district) occurred where Trump won handily. Democrats still competed in all of them. Many elections will take place next year in districts less hospitable to the GOP—Republicans hold 23 seats in districts Clinton won last year, Democrats need to pick up 24 to win the House.
In some of these districts, voters will be less incensed by the prospect of Pelosi as speaker. A few may roll their eyes at an ad featuring Kathy Griffin.
That’s why a second special election that took place Tuesday was interesting. The Republican running to replace budget director Mick Mulvaney in South Carolina’s fifth congressional district underperformed, winning with a shade better than 51 percent of the vote.
No, Democrats won’t win districts like South Carolina Five and shouldn’t waste money trying. If national Republicans had engaged, they probably would have won in a landslide.
But in a hopeless, low-turnout special election, a lot of Democrats showed up without coaxing from the national party. They’ll need to keep that up in a lot of less reliably Republican districts next year to have any hope of retaking the House.
W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?