Democrats and pundits need to be very careful about drawing the wrong conclusions about Jon Ossoff’s defeat in Tuesday’s special election in Georgia. The balloons at Ossoff headquarters have not even deflated and already we are being told he should have run a more left-leaning, progressive campaign (in a traditionally Republican Georgia district), he should have tied his opponent more to Donald Trump, he was weakened by charges he was a toady of Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and his defeat – in what many had presumed would be a welcome victory – foreshadows a grim 2018 election season for Democrats.
All of those conclusions might be correct; but more likely, they are wrong. Elections at their bottom line are a grim, cold business, and people who want to be involved in campaigns need to face facts. So here are a few facts about the George 6th race and what it might say about next year’s off-year election.
The most important piece of news out of Georgia, in my view, was not that Ossoff lost, but that he lost by only 4 points in a district that 8 months ago re-elected a Republican congressman by nearly six times that margin. Less noticed was the similarly close election in South Carolina on Tuesday where last fall’s GOP margin also was shrunken to a few points in a race virtually no one was even watching. These close calls track races earlier this spring in which Democrats came close in Montana and Kansas House races, neither ones that the party had any reason to believe would be competitive.
One of the cruel truths of politics is that you can’t win by losing. But special elections can send significant signals even if they do not produce victories, and this group of four specials in heavily Republican districts are very revealing because each of the districts was so unqualifiedly weighted against a Democratic victory, which is why House strategists resisted pouring money into what they reasonably knew were long shot races.
There are 94 House seats currently held by Republicans where the margin of victory in 2016 was closer than the margin won by Tom Price in Georgia 6 last November. Democrats need to win just 24 of those seats to win the majority (assuming they hang onto their current seats). If you are angling for a House majority, go fishing where the fish are. (Or, as Willie Sutton reportedly replied when asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.”)
One often overlooked consequence of the gerrymandering practiced so effectively by Republicans is that in order to fashion such manipulated districts, the margins tend to be relatively close. States that look solidly Republican actually are chock-full of seats that the GOP wins by narrow margins. To squeeze 6 Republican seats into a state where registration would suggest 4 or 5 is appropriate, the seats need to have a fewer number of Republicans, making them more vulnerable to Democratic challengers. This is where the GOP could face across-the-board problems in 2018: seats that are not quite Republican enough to insulate incumbents from an anti-Trump wave. And there are a lot of them.
It is always important to remember that House races are largely determined by conditions on the ground, in the district, and less impacted by national trends than many believe.
Yes, it would have been satisfying to win Georgia 6th, but the loss is a reminder of one of the rules House tacticians must live with: some seats are just too tough to win. There is a long litany of races where a Democrat pulls down 47% and comes to party leaders explaining how a tweak here or there will produce 50%+1 in the next election if only the campaign committee can spare a million dollars or so. In many cases, that just isn’t true: yes, in a wave, all bets are off, but those familiar with the rhythm of House campaigns know that some seats can inch agonizingly close to victory without ever quite getting there. My guess is (and was throughout the Ossoff campaign) that Georgia 6 was probably one of those.
Of course, it didn’t help that our candidate was facing an experienced campaigner who had won statewide office and run for governor and senator. True, Clinton lost the district by only a couple of points (NOTE: However, she did lose it, see previous paragraph), but one should not be surprised that women repelled by Trump’s misogyny might come home to an established, Republican, female House candidate who avoided mentioning the president’s name. While the avalanche of money for Ossoff was impressive, it certainly didn’t help that the vast majority of it came from outside Georgia, bolstering Karen Handel’s characterization of Ossoff as a outsider-financed, carpetbagging interloper (who incidentally lived with his girlfriend outside the district).
So, what does this disappointing, if predictable, outcome tell us about 2018? Actually, the closeness of these races leaves me fairly optimistic, although it will still be a grueling path back to 218 for House Democrats. It is still very early in the cycle to assume these four losses spell doom for Democrats, who won a string of special election victories in 2009 only to suffer a massive loss in 2010. Events still unknown will likely shape the outcome 16 months from now, and if congressional Republicans cannot deliver legislative victories that demonstrably benefit independent voters, or if Trump continues his bull-in-the-china-shop approach to governing, the close races in 2018 may well swing towards the Democrats.