The first real bellwether election of the Trump era, at least according to the media, finally concluded as Republican Karen Handel dispatched her Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff in the special election for Georgia’s Sixth congressional district. As such, much will be inferred from this result — perhaps too much from a special election overhyped by the media and by big donors.
As much as I prefer not to read too much into one special election, I will do so below. It is time to perform perhaps the most wretched of arts — the political hot take. Yes, the Georgia special election may have been overhyped but it nonetheless portends important lessons.
Republican relief, but trouble lurks
I was always of the belief that a Republican loss in GA-06 would have a much more profound effect on the short-term political landscape than a Republican victory. For that reason, Handel’s victory after most polls had Ossoff ahead should be a relief for Republicans but nothing to truly celebrate. It was, after all, a historically Republican district where former congressman Tom Price cruised to a 23-point victory in 2016 albeit with Trump barely winning it.
Though the result signals to national Republicans that the president’s scandals and low approval rating have yet to negatively affect Republicans in friendly territory, Trump’s unpopularity is still nothing for the GOP to ignore. His current unpopularity (though it could get worse or better in the next 18 months) may still be a liability for Republicans in districts won by Hillary Clinton last November.
Some pundits have interpreted Handel’s victory as a signal to Republicans to assure them to pass the AHCA. That may be true, but the Republicans’ win yesterday does not obscure that their repeal-and-replace bill is still inordinately unpopular. As such, the fate of the bill is highly uncertain. It would be incredibly shortsighted for certain Republican senators to interpret a victory in a House special election as a reason to pass an unpopular bill criticized for its secrecy to the public.
Democrat disappointment, but there is momentum
In the sense that the only result that would have been a game changer was a Ossoff victory, yesterday’s result is a major disappointment for Democrats. It was both a wasted opportunity to send shockwaves across the political landscape and panic through the GOP, and a major waste of treasure. If Democrats are to retake the House in 2018 (the party needs to flip 24 seats currently held by Republicans), GA-06 was one of those Republican-leaning districts Democrats will need to flip next year.
Democrats will invariably speak of the result as a moral victory, though how many more moral victories do Democrats really want to claim going forward? Regardless, yesterday’s resultIllustrates that, for now, national trends point in favor of Democratic success in 2018. Ossoff did, after all, overperform by 17 points over the previous Democrat in 2016. This comes on the heels of Democrats overperforming their 2016 results in the three other special elections by 14 points in Montana, 24 points in Kansas’s Fourth congressional district and 17 points in South Carolina’s Fifth (the completely under the radar special election yesterday which ended up being closer than in Georgia).
Democrats may have some modicum of momentum based on those results, but getting closer is not going to cut it if the party wants to gain power again in 2018.
Democratic Message Post-Trump: Still in Flux
Ossoff’s loss once again brings up the point that Democrats still lack a unified and coherent message as the midterms approach. Ossoff, though he overperformed the average Democrat in the district, was a weak and rather bland candidate. His lack of political experience and his residing outside the district also proved to be severe limitations. Reacting after the election last night, Vox’s Matthew Yglesias argued that Ossoff’s bland, boring campaign message cast the election as “about nothing” which allowed Republicans to attack him on non-substantive issues such as living outside the district and tying him to Kathy Griffin.
The defeat proves that Democrats cannot simply rely on voters’ antipathy toward Trump and his unpopularity for electoral success in Republican-leaning districts. Ossoff and the Democrats trapped themselves in an inarticulate message of economic centrism, anti-Trump sentiment and social progressivism. That message and strategy may work with a more experienced candidate in a less Republican-leaning district, but it proved faulty in GA-06.
It may be time for Democrats to shift their 2018 message to not only tying Republican candidates to a currently unpopular president but also a message that strongly focuses on the unpopular policy agenda of Paul Ryan and the GOP more broadly. Attacking and criticizing the latter on healthcare and the much derided AHCA appears to be where Democrats can potentially find the most success. If the AHCA is to pass through the Senate and become law, that would give Democrats a ton of ammunition for the midterms.
Nonetheless, the party will not see major success in 2018 merely by voicing opposition to a health care bill even Republicans have had difficulty defending. Only can a positive, substantive alternative on health care be able to energize and turn out the base, attract moderates and independence, and flip even a smattering of disaffected Republicans.
Democrats’ Nancy Pelosi Problem
If it is not clear to the Democratic Party that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is a liability, Tuesday’s defeat sure further prove it. A major part of Handel’s campaign strategy was to connect Ossoff to Pelosi — forever a Republican caricature of the elite San Francisco liberal. Once again, Republicans prove that, in Republican districts especially, Pelosi will always be a millstone around the neck of Democrats.
It may just be time for Democrats to seriously a new leader in the House. Even Ossoff himself understood that as he declined to say if he would endorse Pelosi for Democratic House leader.
Now, if the progressive wing of the party were really bold they would consider drafting a primary challenger to Pelosi’s left in a heavily Democratic district.