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11 Things I Think I Think After the Special Elections

Lessons from the Georgia and South Carolina races

Jon Ossoff supporters at the Georgia Democrat’s election night watch party are stunned as CNN calls the state’s 6th District race for Republican Karen Handel on Tuesday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Jon Ossoff supporters at the Georgia Democrat’s election night watch party are stunned as CNN calls the state’s 6th District race for Republican Karen Handel on Tuesday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

One of the best parts about covering elections is that there is a final result. What seems like an endless stream of campaigning and ads and analysis finally comes to an end every time with vote tallies to digest until the next round.

President Donald Trump and the Republicans continue to play with electoral fire, but the GOP pulled off two more special election victories; this time in Georgia’s 6th District and South Carolina’s 5th District. As with the previous results in Kansas and Montana, there are enough tidbits in each result to formulate whatever conclusion helps you sleep better at night.

Inspired once again by Peter King (no, not the New York Republican) and his team at Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarterback, I decided to jot down Eleven Things I Think I Think after the latest election results.

1. The House majority was at risk before the Georgia special election and it’s at risk after the Georgia special election.

This is just based on history. The president’s party has lost seats in 18 of the last 20 midterm elections, with an average of 33 seats lost in those 18 cycles. Democrats need to gain 24 seats next year for a majority. If that’s not convincing enough, veteran GOP pollster Glen Bolger pointed out that presidents with a job approval rating below 50 percent have seen their party lose an average of 40 seats in midterm elections. Donald Trump was at 40 percent approval in the most recent RealClearPolitics average. The past doesn’t always dictate the future and Republicans might gloat over winning another battle but they could still lose the 2018 war.

2. Republicans found their 2018 message.

Prepare for more ads featuring House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and so-called San Francisco values. It’s a big part of what delivered a victory for Karen Handel in Georgia, by turning out base GOP voters. But those voters, particularly Trump supporters, may not be as open to that message next year if they believe congressional Republicans are as much to blame for blocking Trump’s agenda. Republicans also pounded Handel’s Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff, a 30-year old former Capitol Hill staffer, for puffing up his national security credentials and being weak in the fight against ISIS. But next year, Republicans will be facing a platoon of retired military veterans in districts around the country. Of course, that won’t prevent the GOP from trying to use that attack line, but it may not resonate quite as well.

3. Victory bought congressional Republicans some time, but the window is closing to get more done.

If Handel had lost, the panic and hand-wringing on the Republican side may have been too much for the party to overcome to pass any substantial legislation. Her victory gives the GOP an opportunity to continue the legislative slog, but multiple GOP sources believe the party has to deliver on some big-ticket items and campaign promises before facing voters next year. If they don’t, Republicans risk further inflaming Democrats or alienating their own base, or both. Just because the base turned out for Handel in the special election doesn’t mean that dynamic will hold for elections over a year from now.

4. It’s possible for Democrats to lose special elections in Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, and even suburban Atlanta and still have momentum in the cycle.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets on January 21 in protest of Trump’s inauguration. Town hall protests are packed with activists angry at the Republican-controlled government. A 30-year-old former Hill staffer raised over $22 million in five months. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reported adding 2.4 million people to its email list this year and received online donations from 167,000 first-time donors. The committee raised $9.3 million in May compared to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s $6.5 million. Democrats haven’t cracked the code in these races, but they have time to harness the energy before next year. Democrats won special elections before losing big in 2010 and Republicans won special elections before losing big in 2006.

5. I need to do a better job of scheduling.

I’ll be spending most of Wednesday in a sweet Honda Odyssey driving my family to northeast Indiana the day after the biggest elections in six months. I know it’s good to get outside the Beltway from time to time, but my timing might have been a little better. If you’re ever wondering how to turn a 10-hour drive into a 14-hour drive, I’ve got some free advice. And if you’re ever in Huntington, Indiana, check out Antiqology.

6. The 2016 presidential results might be the exception rather than the new rule.

The Democratic excitement about Georgia’s 6th District began with Trump’s narrow 48-47 percent victory over Clinton there, even though Mitt Romney handily carried it 61-38 percent in 2012 over President Barack Obama. The district might be shifting blue over time, but Trump’s performance understated the Democrats’ challenge in this special election. That doesn’t mean Republicans should feel secure in 2018 but districts that shifted wildly from Romney to Clinton (or close to it) could be tougher targets than Democrats initially believed (such as ones in Orange County, California).

7. Republicans deserve credit for navigating a handful of volatile special elections.

Trump skipped the traditional presidential honeymoon and continued to be the polarizing figure from the 2016 campaign. He had the potential to sabotage GOP efforts to hold the seats whose vacancies he created. Of course, three of the special elections (Kansas, Montana, and South Carolina) were in Trump country but the NRCC, with help from the Congressional Leadership Fund, understood the contours of each contest and pulled out victories.

8. Complaining about money is getting old.

Republicans were beside themselves about Ossoff’s ability to raise money from outside Georgia, while their candidate was sustained and carried across the finish line by spending from Republican outside groups. Quit complaining about money and just raise it and spend it. Move on.

9. Trump is still the president, and he’s fueling Democratic enthusiasm.

Ossoff’s race evolved into a cause celebre for the Democratic Party, but he was just a vehicle for Democrats looking to win a fight in the Trump era. Tuesday’s results can’t feel good for the party, and the next fights aren’t until Virginia, New Jersey, and Alabama this fall, but the fundamental dynamic hasn’t changed.

10. Let’s stop looking for perfect candidates.

Some Democrats are blaming Ossoff’s lack of a residency in the 6th District, or being the star of too many of his own campaign ads, or not having a long enough resume, but Handel wasn’t perfect either. In some ways, the longtime politician was an ideal opponent and contrast for Democrats.

11. Political handicapping is a humbling profession.

How honest am I supposed to be? We’ve had the race rated as a Toss-up for weeks now, but I believed Ossoff had a narrow advantage because a majority of the quantitative and qualitative evidence I saw pointed in that direction. (I even told folks a few hours before the polls closed I thought he had a slight edge). I had another half-dozen takeaways partially pre-written for this column that are now buried in a previous version of a Google Doc. But tonight’s results in South Carolina and Georgia are reasons why I love what I do, because each election is different enough to be interesting and keep everyone on their toes. 

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