In November, Hillary Clinton virtually ignored Georgia, and Atlanta’s vote-rich but potentially persuadable suburbs, while campaigning in
Wisconsin Michigan other states. But by sheer dint of not being Donald Trump, who struck a number of reliably Republican women as beyond the pale, Clinton won 46.8 percent in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District — more than 9 percentage points better than Barack Obama fared just four years earlier. Democrats thought that, with some real effort on their part along with an uneven (to say the least) start to the Trump administration, they might get past the finish line. When Tom Price resigned to join the Trump cabinet, they rallied to a young and disciplined candidate and ultimately gave him some $30 million to spend in parts of three counties over about four months.
It was enough to push them Tuesday night all the way up to … 48.1 percent. Thirty million dollars, for a gain of one-point-three percentage points over Clinton’s showing. It has the look of a real ceiling: In the first round in April, Jon Ossoff won 48.12 percent; on Tuesday, after spending millions more, he won 48.13 percent. All of which is why the result of the 6th’s special election has to be seen as a catastrophe for Democrats.
The Trump era has so far been a series of teases for Democrats. They came up just short in Kansas, then in Montana, and also on Tuesday in South Carolina. But nowhere was their money and manpower and message as concentrated as in GA-6. Educated and affluent, it’s the kind of district where their “coalition of the ascendant” is supposed to, well, ascend in the time of Trump. Nationally, the race was billed as a referendum on the president. That narrative always seemed more dubious locally: Local voters tend to be more interested in whether their congressman’s office will answer their phone calls and check on their Social Security and, yes, vote the “right way” when the big votes come. But since that’s the way it was cast, let’s evaluate it in those terms.
The Trump presidency is now real, and sometimes disappointing, and always unpredictable, in ways that were only theoretical before Nov. 8. And yet, exactly five months after Trump took office, the candidate deemed his proxy improved on his showing by 3.6 points, almost triple the gain for the Democrat. If it was a referendum on Trump, we can only say that Trump passed the test.
But again, this election wasn’t merely a referendum on Trump. There were real people standing for office: a political veteran seeking redemption, in the Republican Karen Handel, and a newcomer in the Democrat Ossoff. I’ll have more to say about Handel personally in a separate piece. For Ossoff, it needs to be said that he ran a strong campaign tailored to the 6th’s particular electorate, against an opponent who was beatable, because she’d previously been beaten. His rhetoric didn’t always ring true; his promises were checks from an account sure to be found overdrawn when reconciled with the Democrats’ ledger in Washington. But he ran the only campaign a Democrat could run and have any hope of succeeding in a district that routinely went for Tom Price by 20 points. And it wasn’t enough.
(It also seems likely this newfound Democratic star will have trouble finding a new place in the party’s constellation. What’s a 30-year-old who spent $30 million running for Congress going to do next? Run for the state Senate? Pfft. They were talking about Ossoff as the next Obama! A statewide race, and a prominent one, would seem to be the only fitting option — but the embrace there, from the Stacey Abrams and Kasim Reeds and Jason Carters of the world, who are more paid up in their party dues, might get just a touch awkward. Ironically, Ossoff’s near-success in the closely watched 6th could make it harder, not easier, for him to find another political opening.)
Thirty million dollars, for a gain of one-point-three percentage points. What, were they supposed to spend sixty? Is that what they’ll tell the donors, those folks in California and New York and Massachusetts who sent Ossoff their gifts $10, $20, $50 at a time, thinking he was their Scott Brown, the vanguard of a counter-wave to the one that only recently swept them totally out of power? Will anyone believe it?
Maybe five months after a presidential inauguration is a little soon to expect such a sharp repudiation of the new president. But that’s not what they were selling. Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, Georgia: a superfecta of second places, which doesn’t pay a nickel, not in politics anyway (unless you’re a consultant).
Nor does it provide any momentum for Democrats going into next year’s midterm and statewide elections. Expect this tug-of-war: Ossoff came close because he played to the center; yeah, and just like Carter and Michelle Nunn in 2014 that wasn’t enough, it’s time to be more proudly progressive. It’s already begun. An Ossoff win would have vindicated the peel-off-moderate-Republicans approach. Now, expect more of the turn-out-the-real-Democrats-who-just-stayed-home tack. Only, Ossoff did drive turnout up, way up: Almost 58 percent of the 6th’s voters turned out Tuesday, improving on their amazing (for a special election) 44 percent in April. He surely hit his number, given that expectations were for something like 200,000 to 225,000 votes to be cast. Handel just hit a higher number, driving the total to almost 260,000.
Maybe there are more non-voting Democrats out there somewhere. But I’m not sure counting on them to show up next time is much of a strategy.
The Republicans at Handel’s election night watch party were in a festive mood. I would imagine the ones watching in Washington were equally joyful. They helped compile a lesser but still substantial sum, $20 million or more. The only thing more expensive than their victory was Democrats’ defeat, but when you win there’s always more where that came from. It also gives their legislative agenda a bit of a shot in the arm. Handel’s 4-point win shouldn’t do anything to lower expectations for votes on health reform or tax reform. We await details on just what those reforms might look like, but the show can go on, after Tuesday night.