Democrats are still waiting for their first win in the Age of Trump, as Republican Karen Handel defeated Jon Ossoff to retain control of the seat vacated by Tom Price. Emerging from the tight race with 52% of the vote, Handel defended the GOP’s claim against more than $20 million in Democratic funding, much of it from outside the state.
At this point, everyone is asking what these four special election results mean, most particularly here in Georgia where Ossoff’s chances to flip the seat had looked more promising. Team Trump are of course crowing about the decline of the Democratic party, while some desperate voices on the left are calling it yet another moral victory. Let’s explore what this really means.
The Georgia 6th seat has been held by a Republican since 1979. Handel, bolstered by her own infusions of outside cash, the personal attentions of top-level Republicans including Trump and Pence, and standing in the firing line of a media narrative that suggested her defeat would be the first sign of the 2018 apocalypse, won it fairly marginally.
The Kansas 4th, solidly Republican since 1995, normally breaks at least 60% for its GOP candidate – Mike Pompeo’s worst showing was a 58%. Newly elected Ron Estes was sent to Washington on 52.5% of the vote. In November, this district broke in favor of Donald Trump, who carried it with 60%.
The Montana At-Large seat has been Republican since 1997, having existed since 1993. At its inception, Democrat Pat Williams was re-districted away from the Montana 1st (then a Democratic stronghold). Though not as polarized as many other districts – Republicans have held with anywhere from 51-64% of the popular vote – Montana At-Large has still delivered reliable conservative support. Trump carried this district with 56%. Greg Gianforte squeaked out a win with 50.2%.
South Carolina’s 5th district offers some difference – a Democratic stronghold for over a century, the 18-year career of incumbent John Spratt was ended in 2010 by Republican Mick Mulvaney, sweeping in on the anti-administration wave of that year and new Republican willingness to contest a seat they had largely abandoned. Mulvaney displaced Spratt on 55% of the vote. In the low-turnout election to replace Mulvaney, Ralph Norman held with 51%.
There are three takeaways from this information, none of which should be particularly surprising, let alone tectonic. Democrats are not doomed, neither are Republicans, but there is a message to be found regardless, one that does have things to say about 2018 and beyond.
1) Republicans will view this as political cover on Trumpcare
This is inevitable, and it’s exactly what the Trump team and his cronies in the legislative branch want the takeaway to be. With Senators already expressing displeasure about the secrecy surrounding their own party’s bill on healthcare and Congressmen taking some you-black-kettle shots at the upper chamber’s version of their own terrible bill, Trump and McConnell need to get their house in order to meet McConnell’s deadline of June 30th.
Just as Republican concerns scuppered the first attempt at a Congressional bill – a notable humiliation for the young administration, and entirely a case of Trump getting his fingers burned for his impatience – now the Senate bill is running on McConnell’s certainty that he can ram it through with 50 votes and a tiebreaker if he has to. Either way, Republicans know they’ll have to answer to their constituents when the text becomes public. Handel’s win at least suggests to them that the cloak-and-dagger nature of what is certain to be a terrible piece of legislation hasn’t sufficiently alienated their voters for their support on it to affect their own electoral fortunes.
2) Trump has had a negative impact on the Republican brand
While it hasn’t yet been enough to flip a seat, Trump’s presence in the White House and on the news matches with some notable hits to the vote margin in each of these Congressional special elections. Arguably the turnout is not reflective of 2018 (let alone 2020), as off-cycle elections often present with significantly lower voter interest, but it looks in each case as though voters supportive of the Republican party and/or Trump himself have found their enthusiasm wandering.
3) Despite everything, it’s still politics as usual
Incumbency, red districts, blue districts, none of these basic elements of Congressional politics have been rocked to the core. The Age of Trump may perhaps be more tolerant of political unpleasantness, such as Greg Gianforte’s assault on a reporter, but in five special elections so far this year we’ve seen red districts stay red and blue districts blue. The Georgia 6th may have been viewed as a close race in a district that almost voted Clinton over Trump, but step back for a moment and remember that this is the district that elected Newt Gingrich. If a sea change is going to come, it will have to manifest in more purple districts, places where a “Trump thump” of 3-6 percentage points will tilt the scales.
Why did Ossoff lose? Again, look to traditional politics. Handel’s campaign didn’t even bother debating him on the issues, taking easy shots instead at his living outside the district, at his youth and political inexperience. Ossoff’s team, in turn, marketed him as “Humble” and “Nice.” When you take a word that was once synonymous with “stupid” and stamp it on your candidate, you should really reevaluate your strategy.
Handel’s victory is a victory for McConnell’s healthcare shenanigans, for Trump’s self-congratulatory Twitter parade, and for the tenuous bounce-back of Republican morale. It’s not much of a milestone, though, and there’s not a lot here for them to capitalize on. Democrats should stop worrying about moral victories and instead recognize that this defeat in battle is immaterial to the war to come.