Let me share a few thoughts about tonight’s results out of Georgia’s 6th district in which Republican Karen Handel has now been projected as the winner.
First, there’s no question and there should be no denying that this is a very disappointing loss. It is a very Republican district. It was vacated by HHS Secretary Tom Price who has been a key architect of Trumpcare, which is now readying to scythe its way through the tens of millions of Americans who gained coverage from Obamacare. It was even the seat once held by Newt Gingrich. Taking it from the GOP would have been a big victory both substantively and symbolically. It would also have sent a clear signal that the GOP’s House majority is living on borrowed time.
All this being said, this is a heavily Republican district and Republicans just barely held on to the seat. Yes, Democrats gave it everything they had, with small donors from around the country pouring money into the race. But Republican SuperPacs poured millions into the race too. In the last three elections, Tom Price won this seat by 65%, 66% and 62%. A significant part of those almost 2 to 1 margins was due to the fact that Democrats fielded only nominal candidates who raised little or no money. But these are chicken and egg type questions. It is precisely because this is a strongly Republican district that Price drew no serious contenders. A better measure are the recent presidential results. There John McCain won the district by 62% and Mitt Romney won it by 61%. To use yet another measure, 538 rates it a +9.5 Republican district, which means it’s 9.5 percentage points more GOP than the country as a whole.
The big exception was Donald Trump who won the district but only with 48% of the vote, less than 2 percentage points over Hillary Clinton, even as Price cruised to a smashing victory. That was not terribly surprising. The district is relatively diverse for a GOP district and educated and affluent. In other words, it’s made up of just the kind of Republicans who proved most resistant to Trump. The question has been whether that Trump unpopularity would apply to a conventional Republican who, by normal standards, is well suited to the district. The answer from tonight seems to be, yes. Ossoff dramatically over-performed and almost won the seat.
Almost isn’t a marginal win of course. You have to win to win. But this isn’t the same as saying Hillary Clinton won some moral victory by winning the popular vote. Special elections are preludes to mid-terms and general elections, not the story in themselves. And in this they are being played only in districts that had their representatives plucked away for cabinet appointments precisely because they represented safe seats.
My take is that the most realistic way to see this result is that it is one of a string of special elections in which Democrats have dramatically over-performed in Republican districts. Yet they haven’t been able to win any of them yet. There were two before this (Kansas and Montana) and another tonight (South Carolina) where the Democrat also lost but got a lot closer than people expected.
If you take the average Democratic over-performance in these districts and apply it to the entire House, Democrats are quite likely to take the House next year. What I take from this is that Republicans are struggling under Trump and Democrats are energized. But Democrats need to keep refining both their message and improving their electoral infrastructure. The most challenging takeaway I take from these races for Democrats is that even though Republicans have lost substantial ground and are operating in a tough environment they’ve nevertheless been able to mobilize money and partisan affiliation to hold on in tight races. That can’t be ignored. It’s also very significant.
What Democrats need to resist at all costs is the temperamental inclination to fall into spasms of self-loathing over this defeat – specifically, the idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the party because of this loss. I saw one Democrat on Twitter tonight ask if Ossoff’s loss didn’t mean “the Democratic party apparatus needs a total overhaul on every single level?”
Maybe the Democrats do need a fundamental overhaul. But doing 10 to 15 points better than a House candidate has done in this district since the 1970s simply isn’t evidence for that. There’s also a toxic desire on the part of many to use this painful defeat as an opening to relitigate intra-party grievances. Losing is hard. Taking a loss and getting up the next day to keep fighting to get to the next level takes endurance and guts. Many cannot resist the temptation to trade that sting for a toxic self-validation. All I can say to that is that parties build majorities by finding ways to unite competing factions over common interests and goals – something Donald Trump should help with a lot. They almost never get there when they are locked in internecine struggle or when either faction thinks it can or does destroy the other. That’s just not how it works.
This is a big disappointment. But remember, by any objective measure these races show a Democratic party resurgent and a GOP on the ropes. These seats came open because they were vacated by people Trump picked for cabinet appointments. They got those picks because they came from safe seats. They are by no means a cross section of House seats. The thing to do is learn what we can from coming up just short and move on to the next fight. No one should expect any of this to be easy. If you do, bow out of civic questions and just watch movies and TV. We need people with more endurance.