After what seems like a years-long campaign and tens of millions of dollars spent on a special election that both national parties eyed as a hugely symbolic one, Republican Karen Handel emerged from the Georgia special election Tuesday night with a larger-than-expected, four-point victory.
The result set off a round of gloating from Republicans - up to and including those with the surname "Trump" — and some serious teeth-gnashing among Democrats, who were clearly and publicly frustrated by their inability to win a race despite a firm belief that Trump's unpopularity is their ticket to winning elections.
Drawing those big, national conclusions from one out of 435 congressional districts — especially one that I argued Tuesday is highly unique in the Age of Trump — is always a fraught exercise. But here are some things we can say after Tuesday night, in the form of winners and losers.
• The GOP brand: Democrats who don't believe the sky is falling will gladly point out that Georgia's 6th is a district they've regularly lost by 20 points or more for years, including when then-Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., was reelected last year before being plucked to become Health and Human Services secretary. About the only indication it could be competitive was Trump's narrow, 1.5-percentage point win over Hillary Clinton that same day. This is why Democrats went all-in in Georgia.
In the end, it was a bad and expensive bet. They tried hard and lost, and Republicans tried hard and won, period. And it reinforces the idea that Republicans in such districts - i.e. highly affluent, suburban ones where Trump struggled — aren't necessarily doomed by Trump's unpopularity. We saw that in the 2016 election, when Republicans kept winning these districts in spite of Trump. If that continues to be the case in 2018, Democrats' task of winning back the majority just became much more difficult.
• Karen Handel: Yes, of course she won, so she's a winner. But she had plenty on the line here. When she emerged as the de facto GOP nominee, I noted how her recent history of lackluster Senate and governor campaigns — not to mention her unceremonious exit from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation — would make her an attractive scapegoat if things went south for the GOP. Instead, she beat expectations and now joins Congress in a seat that should be hers for years to come.
• Democrats' ability to just win: It's foolhardy to say Democrats are suddenly doomed when they keep overperforming Hillary Clinton in these special elections. Georgia is so far the only congressional race of 2017 in which they haven't done so by double digits, in fact. Even as Democrat Jon Ossoff was losing Tuesday, Democrats lost a shockingly close race in South Carolina's 5th Congressional District, where Archie Parnell fell by 3 points in a place Clinton lost by 18 points eight months ago. They also outperformed her margins by 14 points in a Montana special election and 21 points in Kansas in recent months. That's got to be encouraging for them, and a big reason they haven't won all these races is simply because they have been held in firmly conservative districts.
But it's also true that Democrats went big in Georgia, and they couldn't put it together. They had nine weeks after the primary to get from 49 percent of the vote that day to 50 percent-plus-one on Tuesday, and they didn't do it. For a party still smarting from somehow losing a 2016 presidential race that was well within their grasp, they have to feel the need to do some soul-searching and figure out why their strategies aren't resulting in actual wins. Commence blood-letting.
• Carpetbagging: I'm not sure how much more evidence we need that residency and connection to constituents matters to voters. One of the top knocks on Ossoff was that he didn't actually live in the district he was running in. And while it's difficult to say whether and how much that hurt him, there are plenty of examples in recent years of voters being not terribly fond of voting for someone who has such issues.
Mostly, that's come in the form of incumbent senators perhaps not really living in their home states — see: Richard Lugar, Pat Roberts and Mary Landrieu — but we've also got Scott Brown's ill-fated attempt to cross the border and win in New Hampshire (he wound up being a rare GOP loser in a toss-up race in a strong GOP year in 2014) and some other examples at the congressional level (see: Sean Eldridge). At the very least, it's got to give parties pause about plucking wealthy or well-known candidates to go district-shopping and raise big money from California, rather than picking someone with true ties to their potential constituents.
• Long special elections: There were more than two months between the primary in April and the runoff on Tuesday, a period during which residents of the 6th District were inundated with ads and mailers and pretty clearly grew tired of the $50-plus million spent on their member of Congress. It has also been more than four months since Price was confirmed as HHS secretary, leaving the constituents of the 6th without a voice in Congress for all that time. Is there really a reason the runoff needed to be nine weeks? I struggle to think of one.
• Trump: It's tempting to claim this as vindication for Trump — and he certainly set about claiming that on Tuesday night — but it's just not. Democrats didn't even really make the race about him, Handel hardly embraced him and this was a district Republicans didn't even have to defend until Trump came along. In addition, Trump's approval rating is still under 40 percent, his legislative agenda is still struggling, and his own self-inflicted wounds from the Russia investigation are still dogging him. Trump had more to lose here than he had to gain, and he didn't lose. That's not nothing, but it doesn't suddenly make him the Comeback Kid either.