Democrats failed to turn Georgia’s special election Tuesday into a resounding victory against President Trump, with Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff falling just short of the 50 percent plus one he needed to avert a runoff.
Republican Karen Handel finished second in the race to fill the 6th Congressional District seat left open by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, earning the spot opposite Ossoff in a contest she’s favored to win.
Republicans, including Trump, crowed that they had beaten back Ossoff in a race that attracted liberal star power and millions of dollars in outside money.
But GOP-aligned groups also spent millions in the state, and their short-term victory papers over a larger problem. With liberals energized in their opposition to Trump and hoping to be competitive in more red districts in 2018, Tuesday’s vote in Georgia looks set to reverberate into the midterms.
Here are five takeaways from Tuesday night’s election:
More seats could be in play for Democrats
Ossoff’s strong showing and a closer-than-expected vote in a special election in Kansas last week mean that the midterm trends are looking up for Democrats.
Republicans spent millions defending the Kansas seat that Trump won by 27 points, eventually retaining it by only 7 points.
And Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democrat and political neophyte, nearly won a seat that has in the past been held by GOP heavyweights like former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonFive takeaways from the Georgia special electionLive results: Georgia special electionTrump should work with Congress to block regulations on prepaid cardsMORE.
Those results have liberals convinced that they can turn the left’s anti-Trump energy into electoral gains.
Liberals have harried GOP lawmakers at town hall events and coordinated massive protests against Trump’s policies, a grassroots enthusiasm that translates into money and volunteers for Democratic candidates.
Still, Democrats haven’t actually won any new seats. And Democrats are defending 25 of their own in the Senate.
To take back the House, Democrats will need to flip at least 24 seats in 2018, which will mean taking out incumbents in Trump districts.
FiveThirtyEight analyst Nate Silver, looking at Tuesday’s results, considers 48 GOP-held seats to have more favorable electorates for Democrats than Georgia’s 6th District — meaning the House could be in play.
It’s a tall order, but the Democrats’ energy and early fundraising returns in Georgia show that the party can be competitive in districts that were thought to be safe for Republicans.
Trump is a challenge for Republican candidates
For Republicans, there’s no one right way to deal with the president.
Trump has a loyal base that could boost any Republican who aligns with the president. He has also engendered fierce opposition from an energized liberal base that wants to tie all Republicans to his controversial presidency and persistently low approval ratings.
That’s a delicate dynamic for GOP candidates, as Handel showed.
Handel ran furthest from Trump and came out on top in a field that included 10 other Republicans.
Still, Trump swooped in late to leave his mark on the race, tweeting attacks against Ossoff and recording robocalls aimed at rallying GOP voters.
Handel didn’t mention Trump’s name in her victory speech. But Trump praised Handel over Twitter afterward — albeit while claiming some of the credit for the forced runoff himself.
In post-election interviews, Handel thanked the president. When asked if Trump will stump with Handel, she told CNN that the campaign was “all hands on deck.”
Republicans can thank Trump for drastically remaking the electoral map in places like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But GOP candidates and incumbents in some traditionally red regions will have to decide how close they’ll tie themselves to a president who has energized the opposition.
Both sides will put in big money
Ossoff raised $8.3 million in the first quarter, an enormous haul for a House race. And he managed to spend much of that cash, finishing the first quarter with only $2 million in the bank.
Similarly, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and a GOP House super PAC spent millions in the run-up to the primary as they sought to keep Ossoff from breaking the 50 percent mark.
Both GOP groups also swooped in during the final days of the Kansas special election.
Just hours after the election was called, the NRCC had already debuted a new general election ad, while Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez booked a Thursday fundraiser in the district.
The Georgia and Kansas special elections attracted national attention, so that level of fundraising and outside spending won’t be the norm for most races.
But it’s a sign that candidates and outside groups will have to work the donor circuit hard to stay competitive at a time when every race is being cast as a referendum on Trump or the relative health of the two national parties.
In Federal Election Commission filings this week, Senate Democrats posted sizable hauls, many driven by small-dollar donations.
Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillFive takeaways from the Georgia special electionPicking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groupsPotential McCaskill challenger has .7M: reportMORE (D-Mo.) raised $2.8 million, more than anyone in Missouri has ever raised in a quarter.
It appears that $2 million quarterly hauls will be the benchmark for Senate Democrats in red states.
The pressure will be on Republican candidates and their deep-pocketed outside groups to keep pace to protect their congressional majorities.
Dems face decision on Montana
After Kansas and Georgia, national Democrats will feel pressure to get involved in the remaining special elections.
The party took a lot of heat for its last-minute investment in Kansas, where the nominee improved the usual Democratic showing in a reliably conservative seat. But Democrats went all-in for Ossoff early, sending paid staffers on the ground and launching ad campaigns to boost turnout.
The party will still help Ossoff in the June runoff, but the focus now shifts to Montana’s special election to fill the seat vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Democrat Rob Quist will square off against Republican Greg Gianforte on May 25 for Montana’s lone congressional district, which has trended red for the past two decades.
Quist, a local folk musician, has a populist streak and scored a coveted endorsement from Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive takeaways from the Georgia special electionSanders: I don’t consider myself a DemocratClinton campaign dogged by infighting, overconfidenceMORE (I-Vt.), who will campaign with him across the state.
Gianforte, a wealthy businessman who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2016, is considered the favorite.
Still, Republicans are taking no chances. The Congressional Leadership Fund will spend at least $1 million on ads and voter turnout efforts, according to The Wall Street Journal. And the NRCC’s advertising arm made a six-figure buy of TV and digital ads.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has yet to weigh in on the race but will likely be prodded to get involved after the party’s strong special election showings elsewhere.
South Carolina’s special election will be an even tougher lift for Democrats.
Primaries will be held on May 2 for the seat vacated by Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. The general election falls on the same day as Georgia’s runoff, June 20.
Repeating Clinton numbers isn’t good enough
Ossoff outperformed Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from the Georgia special electionSocial media arms race needs to begin now for 2020Assange says WikiLeaks will show ‘all sorts of illegal actions by the CIA’MORE in the suburban Atlanta district by slightly more than 1 percentage point. But he needed to far surpass those numbers if he wanted to win outright on Tuesday.
In the runoff, Ossoff needs to run up the score even more in the district’s three counties.
In DeKalb County — the most Democratic of the three — Ossoff edged out Clinton by less than 2 points. This is an area where Ossoff needs to get higher turnout in two months, as well as in Cobb County.
Ossoff also led in the more conservative Fulton County. Now that Handel has the GOP field to herself, she’s likely to have a strong showing since she resides in north Fulton and previously chaired the county’s Board of Commissioners.
Even though Ossoff dominated the 18-candidate field Tuesday, more Republicans turned out to vote overall. So Democrats will need to sway some independents and GOP-leaning voters in June.
Tuesday’s race serves as an indicator for other Democrats running in GOP-trending seats in 2018: They have to out-perform Clinton.