It is a truism in politics that special elections usually don’t mean very much. But Tuesday’s run-off election in the Georgia Six, as it came to be known, could be one of the exceptions to the rule. If, on Tuesday, the Democrats had captured this deep red congressional seat in an affluent suburb of Atlanta, it would have been a major blow to President Trump and his Republican allies. Conceivably, it could have affected the progress of the controversial G.O.P. health-care bill and other matters pending in Congress. Undoubtedly, it would have been received as a harbinger of the Democrats’ chances in next year’s midterms. But, by ten o’clock on Tuesday night, Republicans gathered at the headquarters of Karen Handel, their party’s candidate, were already celebrating a victory over Jon Ossoff, the young Democratic upstart.
The result was a huge relief for Republicans and a reality check for Democrats. This was a seat that has been held by Republicans for decades. In November, the District’s previous congressman, Tom Price, who is now Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, carried the district by more than twenty-three percentage points. But Georgia’s Sixth is also a district where almost sixty per cent of the electorate have college degrees, and where, according to a recent Atlanta Journal Constitutionpoll, Trump’s approval rating is just thirty-five per cent. Ossoff led the field, with forty-nine per cent of the vote, in April’s so-called “jungle primary,” and Democrats began to hope that he could pull off a historic victory and demonstrate that Trump is poison to the Republican Party, at least in certain areas.
Yet, soon after the votes started coming in, it was evident that Ossoff’s challenge, which attracted strong financial and logistical support from Democrats and Trump-loathers all across the country, had come up a bit short. His lead among early voters wasn’t as big as had been expected, and, when the returns started coming in from the heavily Republican Cobb County, it turned out that Handel, a fifty-five-year-old businesswoman and veteran Georgia politician, had succeed in rallying enough Republicans behind her.
Despite the result, Ossoff, a thirty-year-old documentary filmmaker and a former congressional aide, shouldn’t have his achievement dismissed. By peeling off a significant number of Republican moderates, particularly Republican women, he held the G.O.P.’s margin of victory to about 3.8 percentage points. If such a big swing were repeated nationwide in the midterms, it would produce a hefty Democratic majority. Still, as David Axelrod pointed out on CNN, shortly after the network called the race, in politics you don’t get prizes for coming in second. And the ultimate message of the evening was that, in this heavily contested Republican district, traditional party lines held up, despite deep local misgivings about Trump.
This was partly because Handel, with a big helping hand from the national Republican Party, ran an effective campaign. To offset the roughly twenty-five million dollars that Ossoff raised, the Congressional Leadership Fund—a super PAC associated with House Speaker Paul Ryan—and the National Republican Campaign Committee poured in more than thirteen million dollars. America First Policies, a super PAC formed by former Trump-campaign officials, kicked in another $2.5 million.
While many Democrats wanted the race to be a referendum on Trump, Republican ads framed it in a more traditional way: as a race between a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat. The G.O.P. high command depicted Ossoff as a puppet of Hollywood celebrities and Nancy Pelosi, who, according to the Journal Constitution poll, has a ninety-one per cent disapproval rating among local Republicans. Although Ossoff did his best to portray himself as a non-ideological moderate—he refused to endorse higher taxes on the rich and said that he would work with the Trump Administration on issues that benefitted the district—the Republican barrage proved effective, something Handel acknowledged in her victory speech.
Handel thanked Ryan and other Republican leaders who “united to help us holds the Sixth.” She also offered “a special thanks to the President of the United States.” The crowd responded with chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump.” Then, perhaps displaying her true feelings, she added, “And let’s not forget our equally great Vice-President, Mike Pence.” (A couple of weeks ago, Pence flew to Georgia and attended a fundraiser for Handel.)
Ossoff, in his concession speech, didn’t mention Trump directly. But he did say to his supporters, “As darkness has crept across the planet, you’ve been a beacon of hope.” Democrats, however, had been hoping for more than a beacon. They wanted a victory to cheer, and it’s failure to materialize is sure to generate debates about the future direction of the Party, and whether Ossoff would have done better if he had adopted a more populist and overtly anti-Trump approach.
In a district as red as Georgia’s Sixth, the disheartening truth is that Ossoff probably wouldn’t have done better had he run to the left. While many Republicans have some misgivings about Trump, they have even more serious misgivings about voting for a Democrat. According to that same opinion poll in the Journal-Constitution, just one in three Republican voters said that they were supporting Handel to express support for Trump. What motivated them, they said, were traditional Republican issues: taxes, government spending, and illegal immigration.
It bears repeating that this was a special election—it is dangerous to make projections based on these results. In another special House election on Tuesday, in South Carolina, the Democrats did better than expected. If the White House and the Republicans go ahead and pass unpopular measures, such as tax cuts for the rich and a health-care bill that raises premiums and causes tens of millions of people to lose their insurance coverage, they could well suffer the consequences in 2018.
For now, though, it is Trump and congressional Republicans who are smiling. Their Faustian pact remains intact.