Don’t fall for the spin. Karen Handel’s five-point win in the Georgia special House election was a crushing defeat for Democrats, who learned, once again, that the great majority of Republicans are more than willing to ignore that strange odor coming from the White House.
Yes, Democrat Jon Ossoff came close in an overwhelmingly Republican district that Democrats routinely lose by 20 points or more and have been losing since Jimmy Carter was fighting off rabbits in his fishing boat. Doesn’t matter. This is also an affluent, highly-educated suburban Atlanta district that does not like Donald Trump. This is a district Trump carried by little more than a point in 2016 while Rep. Tom Price, now your anti-Obamacare Health secretary, was winning it by 23.
You get the idea. In this solid-red district, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll put Trump’s approval rating at, ahem, 35 percent. No wonder the cash poured in, making this the most expensive House race in history. No wonder this was seen as the place where a breakthrough was possible. No wonder — and this is the hard part for the Democratic faithful — Democrats were so willing to believe again and to risk having their spirits crushed again.
If the Democrats thought they could win this special election — and they did — it wasn’t because the district had suddenly turned blue. It was solely because of the disaster that is the Trump presidency, which, historically, should mean energized Democrats and dispirited Republicans. So much for history. No wonder they teach it differently in red states.
And that’s why the result is so troubling. Trump is a disaster. The Russia affair, however scandalous it may or may not turn out to be, generates devastating headlines by the day. Trump’s poll numbers are historically low. The Republican Obamacare replacement bill is so unpopular that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s game plan has been to keep it secret even from his own members and probably from his wife.
And yet, with all this, enough Republicans stuck with the party in Georgia’s 6th CD to lift Handel past Ossoff, the young movie documentarian who hadn’t bothered to move into the district. What happened to the Trump Effect? And why in Trump’s name isn’t it more effective?
You see, another thing Ossoff didn’t bother to do was to make the election all about Trump. That wasn’t an accident. His strategy was to be civil, which, we know, almost never works. It was the plan for him to avoid mention of Trump nearly as assiduously as Handel would. This would be basically a non-Trump zone in an election that was, after all, supposed to be a referendum on the president.
It’s easy to figure out why. Democrats didn’t want to force Republicans to feel that relentless attacks on Trump were, in effect, attacks on them. But, of course, that’s what happened anyway.
This is the point, we’re told, where partisanship gives way to tribalism. Trump has his base — and we can join the argument about how much that base is motivated by economic populism and how much by ethnic resentment and how much by a mix of the two — but Trump also has non-base Republicans, who mostly stayed with their team.
The message voters heard from Handel and from the outside money that joined the fight was that, if elected, Ossoff would be a pawn of Nancy Pelosi and Hollywood. (And there was the particularly ugly ad from an outside group saying Democrats were cheering the Alexandria baseball shooting, but, hey, who didn’t expect that?) Handel, though hardly a great politician, was relentlessly on message. And it worked, too, or it worked well enough. And while going anti-Pelosi may not work quite as well outside the South — are Colorado Republican children sent to bed with scary Pelosi stories? — it was a case of the best bogeyman available. In that same Journal-Constitution poll, by the way, 6th District Republicans disapproved of Pelosi by a staggering 91 percent.
The strange thing about the night was that there was another special election, in South Carolina, and the Democrat there came as close as Ossoff did. It was a four-point race in a district Trump had won by 18. Obviously, Trump cost the Republicans there, but, again, not quite enough. And one working theory is that Trump cost them more there because of the lack of attention and lack of money and lack, therefore, of the need for Republicans to, you know, come to the aid of their party.
It’s a theory. Democrats have come close or, at least, closer than expected in Kansas, in Montana, in Georgia, and now in South Carolina, all Republican strongholds. But if they’re going to win back the House in 2018, they have to pick up 24 seats. According to people who have done the math, there are 26 seats now held by Republicans in districts where Hillary Clinton scored better than she did in Georgia’s 6th. But the 6th seemed like a setup. These were the disaffected Republicans who were being asked to send Trump and Washington Republicans a message.
But the message for Democrats was that the Trump Effect has its limits. If there’s anything that Democrats were supposed to have learned from the Clinton defeat is that being anti-Trump is not sufficient to win. Dems are famously divided now on message, between the Bernie/Warren faction and the Democratic establishment. But I don’t think that divide mattered at all in Georgia. What matters is that Democrats still don’t have a defining message, and they’re in desperate need of one that works.
But it’s early. And the wise heads say despite the four losses in four Republican strongholds, the vote still shows a significant Democratic lean, which could portend well in 2018. Or, of course, not.
What Democrats need now is reassurance (read: victories) to confirm that the Trump disaster is, in fact, a political disaster. Political sabermetrics are fine, but this is not fantasy politics. And there’s the risk that expectations work only so long as there are rewards.
Or as Huffington Post’s Sam Stein put in the best tweet of Election Night: “Democrats are destined to lose every race from here to eternity by margins just close enough to maintain some hope for the future.”
Photo by Heather Kennedy, via Flickr: Creative Commons