Karen Handel addresses supporters in Atlanta, GA, on June 20, 2017. Jessica McGowan—Getty Images
Jun 20, 2017
The race shouldn’t have been this close.
Republicans fended off a fresh-faced first-time candidate in the Atlanta suburbs on Tuesday, keeping a House seat in GOP hands as it has been for four decades. But the fact it came down to a close contest at all should leave the Republican Party deeply worried about 2018’s midterm elections, and considering the damage potentially inflicted upon it by President Trump.
Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel fended off Jon Ossoff’s campaign, which had tapped into anti-Trump energy in both parties. Outside groups helped pour more than $50 million into the district—a record for a House race—and essentially monopolized televisions, smart phones and telephone lines for both sides in that part of Georgia. It made for a slog for voters there, but about a quarter-million still cast ballots.
That’s not to say Republicans were celebrating widely. The win came at a heavy cost, both in terms of cash and in morale. The district reflects changing demographics in the country, few of which should give the GOP reasons to celebrate. And the President’s long shadow will only grow bigger as Election Day 2018 comes closer.
The Georgia district, anchored in the affluent Atlanta suburbs, had been reliably Republican territory for almost four decades, dating to 1979. The former farmland north of Atlanta has become a bustling center of commerce that rivals the downtown. But it is hardly Trump country; he lost the district in the GOP primary to Sen. Marco Rubio and came close to losing it a second time to Hillary Clinton.
As more residents have moved in, the area has become less solidly Republican. George W. Bush carried the district with 68% of the vote in 2000 and with 70% four years later. But John McCain in 2008 won 65% and Mitt Romney carried it with 61% in 2012. Last year, Trump prevailed with a slim 48% win. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report notes that there has been an almost six-point swing toward Democrats since 2013, and, like much of the South, this could bode well for Democrats in the long-term.
When Democrats talk of expanding the presidential map, it’s usually into places like Georgia or Arizona—two states with increasingly younger and more diverse populations. Clinton’s campaign made an October push into both, wrongly thinking it had successfully built a blue wall in the industrial Midwest. Trump won the state of Georgia with 51% of the vote, and then moved to the White House.
The special election was called because Trump tapped Tom Price to leave the safe House seat to join his Cabinet to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. The House seat was seen reliably red—it previously was held by Newt Gingrich, and by the GOP since —but Democrats looked the numbers and made the gamble they could win both the seat and a highly symbolic victory. Democrats running in that district haven’t cleared the 40% bar in 21 years.
That changed Tuesday night, with Ossoff catching what is perhaps an early wave of anti-Trump sentiment that seems to be bleeding into Republican circles. In Washington, advisers to House Republicans’ campaign committees were watching closely to see just how many races could come into play. After all, according to one analysis, there are 47 GOP incumbents who represent districts that are more left leaning than the Georgia district where Ossoff almost prevailed. “This could be a very bad sign of things to come,” one adviser to House Speaker Paul Ryan said. Said another: “It’s still a ‘W.’”
The GOP victory follows two others with Republican wins but surprisingly strong showings from Democrats. Montana and Kansas are hardly the linchpins for a Democratic majority, but they offered clues how the party of resistance might capitalize on Trump’s low approval ratings.
But candidates matter, too. Ossoff, who grew up in the district but did not live there, was a fresh-faced rookie who ran a stronger than expected campaign. He came close to winning in April, but no candidate climbed over the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff. National Republicans took note and started pumping millions of dollars into the race.
Democrats, too, took interest. They rightly suggest that their path back to the majority in the House is not impossible. Clinton carried 23 districts where Republicans won House seats last year — exactly the number Democrats would need to retake the majority as voting started on Tuesday. (The day began with 238 Republicans, 193 Democrats and four open seats in the House.)
Ossoff’s loss alone won’t blunt the Democrats’ attempts are regaining the majority. If the Atlanta suburbs almost flipped, what’s to stop more fertile swing areas like central Wisconsin, the southern Oregon coast or the northern Virginia suburbs not far from the Capitol? To hear Democrats tell it, merely imagination, ambition and lots of talk about the President.