However the race for Georgia’s 6th congressional district was decided, Jon Ossoff was going to make one of the best showings of a Democratic candidate since Republicans began their winning streak in the northern Atlanta suburbs in 1978. Ossoff, a fresh-faced, blue-eyed newcomer in the world of politics, was everything that the Democratic Party hoped to have in the Donald Trump era: a hip millennial; an outsider; a person who could carry the activism and excitement of the Democratic grassroots and turn it into a win on election day.
And then late Tuesday night, the results came in. It wasn’t good for the Democratic Party.
Karen Handel, the former Georgia Secretary of State and Republican senatorial candidate, won by just under five points. Five points may not sound like a hefty margin for a GOP candidate, especially in a district whose voters have sent Republicans to Washington for the last four decades. But given how competitive the contest was and the fact that pollsters had Ossoff squeaking by with a one of two point victory, Handel’s final numbers were bigger than many would have thought possible.
What can we learn from the Georgia race? While it’s always dangerous to analyze the results of special elections at too granular level and use them as guideposts to how the national electorate will vote a year and a half later, there are a few major findings that the Democratic Party would ignore at their own peril.
First off, Ossoff’s defeat means that Democrats have a lot of soul searching to do. Tuesday night was a double disappointment for the party – not only did they lose in the Georgia 6th, but they also came up short in South Carolina’s 5th district. Nobody gave the Democratic candidate in the South Carolina contest much of a chance, even if Republican Ralph Norman’s three point victory was far from the double digit win that Republicans in the state expected. And yet a loss is still a loss. With South Carolina and Georgia now over, the Democratic Party has a perfect record in special elections this year; they’ve lost four out of four.
In the normal course of events, Handel’s victory wouldn’t be a big deal for Democrats in Washington. The Georgia 6th, after all, is the seat of Newt Gingrich and Tom Price. In the age of Trump, though, progressive and semi-progressive politics are in vogue. Bashing Trump and the Republicans is a popular thing to do for many Americans below the age of 40. The GOP’s legislative stumbles, when added to Trump’s abysmal approval ratings and his tendency to make negative news for himself, has provided a lot of weapons to a Democratic Party shut out of power in Washington but riding the wave of some very pissed off progressives. Jon Ossoff raised $24 million not because he’s a great campaigner or some modern-day version of Bill Clinton, but because Donald Trump arouses such passions on the left that they’re willing to pull money out their wallets for any candidate who could deal the White House an embarrassment. If $24 million in small-donor fundraising, millions of dollars more from Democratic super PAC’s, and a president with a job performance rating in the mid-30’s can’t get a Democrat elected, what can?
An Ossoff defeat also means more pounding headaches for the Democratic National Committee, a party apparatus already getting beaten on by some constituencies for investing so much money in Georgia and so little in Montana. At the same time Chairman Tom Perez continues to restructure the DCCC, he’ll have to combat detractors on the left who think that the Washington Democratic machine remains isolated from the mood of the Democratic electorate and blinded by their own establishment hubris.
Karen Handel ran a good race, as did Jon Ossoff. But running a good race and coming closer than any other Democrat has come before in a conservative district won’t cut it if the Democratic Party aims to flip enough red counties to win back the House.