Democrats lost yet again last night, their fourth straight defeat in special congressional elections. Unless or until they finally put some points on the scoreboard, the anti-Trump resistance means nothing and the supposed anti-Trump wave is just a mirage.
Before I parse last night’s election in Georgia, permit me to quote myself. Ten weeks ago I wrote this about about Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff: “I actually question whether he can win the seat. The Republicans are likely to beat Ossoff one on one in June” — turning out in droves “if only for party loyalty.”
And there you have it. Georgia Republican Karen Handel won the suburban Atlanta seat — in the most expensive House race in history, totaling $55 million — because when the chips are down, grassroots Republicans rally to the party brand.
They don’t know, or likely don’t care, that Donald Trump is a dangerous ignoramous and the target of a criminal probe; that the Russians, with Trump’s purblind complicity, are penetrating our democracy; that Republican lawmakers in Washington plot in anti-democratic secrecyt and need a map to find the bathroom. None of that apparently matters, because when the bell is rung, GOP voters still flock to the label. Handel’s margin of victory, 3.8 percent, will steady Washington Republican jitters about an anti-Trump backlash, and dampen Democratic dreams of taking back the House by turning red districts blue.
Some Democrats will console themselves by pointing out that the suburban Atlanta district has been red since the late ’70s heyday of disco; that it used to be Newt Gingrich’s turf; that its borders have been drawn to ensure a nine-point Republican voting roll advantage; that Ossoff was a 30-year-old newbie, and that Handel was a local fixture with high name ID; and that until January the district’s congressman was Tom Price, who now oversees health policy as a member of Trump’s Cabinet. Price routinely won re-election by 20 to 30 points, so it’s theoretically possible to spin Jon Ossoff’s 3.8-point loss as an encouraging harbinger of good things to come in the ’18 midterms — especially since, in all four ’17 special elections, all in red districts, Democrats have lost narrowly all four times.
Sorry, Dems. A loss is a loss. Moral victories mean squat. If Democrats are to have any chance of flipping 24 districts and recapturing the House, they need to turn districts like Georgia’s Sixth.
According to exit polls, Trump doesn’t do well with highly educated people (for reasons that should seem obvious), and 58 percent of citizens in Georgia’s Sixth are college grads; indeed, when he was matched last November against Hillary Clinton, he barely won the district. Democrats hoped that the special election would be a referendum on Trump’s lies and incompetence (even though Ossoff on the stump barely mentioned Trump), and on paper the sanest Republicans seemed primed to revolt.
They did not. Instead, they rallied to the same messages that have long ginned them up: Nancy Pelosi is bad (thus, Ossoff would be a Pelosi stooge); taxes are bad (Ossoff would hike taxes); Democrats are alien. Especially the latter. Handel highlighted the fact that Ossoff once worked overseas as a documentary filmmaker, which made him sound like a member of the hated media. Also, Ossoff lives near the district, but not in the district. The Handel message was: “He’s just not one of us.”
Ossoff raised and spent roughly $23 million — a Democratic record, most of it garnered from small donations nationwide — but in the end he was swamped by the usual well-heeled suspects: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Congressional Leadership Fund (a Paul Ryan affiliate), the National Republican Congressional Committee, plus lots of GOP donors who responded to Trump’s bat signal. I suppose Democrats can argue that Handel got showered with those goodies because she was the only big game on the off-year map, and that Republicans on 435 House ballots won’t enjoy such largesse next year, but neither will Democratic candidates get what Ossoff got.
In fact, the Georgia results could damage Democratic hopes of recruiting quality candidates in winnable red districts. They had hoped to tell their top prospects, “See what just happened in Georgia? You can do the same thing!” So much for that pitch.
On the flip side, the results will likely buttress Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan in their determination to pass a health care plan that strips coverage from tens of millions of people. Now they can tell their nervous or wavering lawmakers, “Don’t worry so much about a voter backlash. Trump won’t drag you down. See what just happened in Georgia?”
And if Trump decides to fire Bob Mueller, he may tell himself the same thing. After all, elections have consequences.