Tuesday night was a good, but not quite great, night for Jon Ossoff. It will have been a good, and not mediocre, night for Georgia Republicans if it leaves them with the feeling they may need to maintain to win in this new political environment: a little bit scared.
Not scared as in lacking the courage of their convictions, but in the sense they can’t take their dominance of Georgia politics for granted any longer.
They didn’t take the special election in 6th Congressional District for granted, which is why we aren’t referring to Ossoff today as a congressman-elect. National Democrats’ latest heartthrob, to whom they sent millions of dollars, did his part to drive enthusiastic liberals to the polls. His campaign affirmed the surprising 46.8 percent support Hillary Clinton got in the 6th vs. Donald Trump last November, which until Tuesday was logically seen by many of us as a single data point set against years of contrary experience.
Despite those millions from blue states, however, Ossoff barely built upon Clinton’s progress. That’s due in large part to the seriousness with which Republicans treated the race. With their share of the electorate splintered among a half-dozen legitimate candidates, it was conceivable Ossoff could sneak his way to an outright win in the first round of balloting. The GOP prodded its voters to the polls and needed every bit of the 43 percent turnout — huge for a special election — to ensure a runoff.
That they did so without the glee and unity of purpose Democrats marshalled behind Ossoff may be instructive about how they must win in Georgia going forward.
Republicans’ internal disagreements about Trump aren’t going away. And some of the elements of Trumpism that won over blue-collar workers in states like Michigan don’t go over as well with the more affluent suburbanites north of Atlanta who for years have reliably voted Republicans. But what the 6th shows — so far — is this trade-off need not be fatal to Republicans’ chances in such a district. They just have to work at it a bit differently.
That may mean the Republican fad of large, fractious candidate fields will continue, though one wonders if Georgia Democrats, more apt to coalesce quickly behind their choice, will make them pay for it sometime soon. (How the state party might bring some internal discipline to this process ought to be asked of those vying to be the next Georgia GOP chairman.)
One way to avoid that is with a quick mending of fences between the surviving Republican and the vanquished. That too got under way before the vote-counting was even finished, as most of the top GOP candidates lined up behind Karen Handel.
Let me say here that Handel deserves this, and more. It was significant to see fast pledges of support for her from House Speaker David Ralston and Chris Riley, chief of staff to Gov. Nathan Deal. Handel ran for governor in 2010 as an anti-establishment candidate, and hard feelings toward her lingered among elected Republicans for a while — even as she dutifully rallied her supporters behind GOP nominees. To see that wound stitched up now is more than surely gratifying to her. It’s absolutely necessary if she’s to beat Ossoff.
Now she’ll have to pioneer a path other Republicans, in Georgia and beyond, may find useful: how to embrace Trump just enough to please his fervent supporters, while maintaining just enough distance that she doesn’t needlessly whip up his detractors.
Compared to that, the rest of this should be a breeze.