(Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press)
THE MORNING PLUM:
Democrat Jon Ossoff fell just short of the 50 percent needed to win outright in last night’s special election for a GOP-held House seat in the Atlanta suburbs, which means he will now face a runoff against Republican runner-up Karen Handel. The outcome is being widely dissected for what it says about the travails Republicans may face in the 2018 elections, and whether President Trump’s unpopularity is shifting the national political atmosphere toward Democrats.
So here’s one thing worth watching for: How will Handel treat Trump’s leading policy positions? Will she distance herself from his stances on health care, the Mexican border wall, mass deportations and the cuts in the coming Trump/GOP budget? Or will she embrace them? Or perhaps try to finesse her way through?
A senior Democratic strategist tells me private focus groups and polling of voters in Georgia’s 6th District revealed that they were very opposed to the GOP health-care plan — which Trump fully embraces — and the planned border wall. “Even before the bill failed, people knew it would increase costs and rip away coverage, and that bothered them,” the strategist tells me. “They’re very opposed to the border wall. It’s a relatively diverse district.”
During the race that just concluded, Handel — the former Georgia secretary of state — declined to embrace Trump’s health-care plan, saying she backed certain elements of it. But now that there is only one leading GOP candidate — before, Handel was in a crowd of vying Republicans — stances such as this could draw more scrutiny. This morning, Trump tweeted praise of Handel’s performance, and Handel thanked Trump for his congratulatory call to her, raising questions of how tightly they will be tied to each other during the runoff.
What’s more, just this week, Trump called on House Republicans to back the health-care bill, which he is going to continue to push in the days ahead, telling his supporters to “press every one of your congressmen” to get behind it. So you would think that Handel will now come under increased pressure to say whether she would vote for the bill in Congress.
On immigration, Trump has repeatedly ripped Ossoff by claiming that he’ll be soft on illegal immigration. But that will open up Handel to more pressing questions about whether she supports Trump’s immigration policies — the border wall and the expanded deportations, in particular, issues that are coming to a head. On the budget, cuts pushed by Trump and Republicans — for instance, to Planned Parenthood — will gain increasing attention as spending bills are negotiated. Funding for Planned Parenthood, the border wall and even subsidies to reduce out-of-pocket costs for individual health plans are up in the air, and all could produce a government shutdown. That could hurt Handel’s chances, but even if it doesn’t happen, her positions on them bear watching.
Georgia’s 6th District is being widely examined as a bellwether for 2018, because it’s a lot like many other GOP-held districts that Democrats will target — ones in which Trump won by a very slim margin or lost, and ones that are heavily populated with college-educated white and suburban voters. Now Handel (who got less than 20 percent last night) has to put together a much broader pool of voters, including college-educated whites souring on Trump and die-hard Trump supporters. As the senior Democratic strategist tells me: “She’s going to have to rip away some of the people who voted for Ossoff.” But Handel will also need Trump base voters as well, making it tricky to distance herself from his hot-button positions.
To be sure, Handel still has advantages — this is a longtime Republican district. What’s more, Ossoff himself — who has run a campaign largely independent of national narratives — may not be the one who presses Handel to take positions on Trump (local media and national Democrats will likely do so instead, even as Democrats also attack her as a career politician). And Ossoff, too, will be the target of efforts to tie him to national leaders. As NBC’s First Read crew puts it: “The race will be a good early test of what is worse — President Trump or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi?”
So this will be a tough struggle for Democrats. But the point is, one way we’ll be able to gauge how Trump is playing among these college-educated and suburban voters — in advance of 2018 — is to watch how Handel manages his controversial policy positions, and how those voters react to it.
* GEORGIA OUTCOME WILL BOOST DEMOCRATS’ PROSPECTS: The New York Times predicts one important thing that could happen in the fallout from last night’s outcome:
Mr. Ossoff’s strong showing will ensure that national Democrats continue to compete here and will increase pressure on the party to contest a special House election next month in Montana that it has so far ignored … the Georgia result will be an immediate boon to Democratic groups, lifting their fund-raising and bolstering candidate recruitment efforts, while sobering Republicans who are assessing whether to run in Mr. Trump’s first midterm election.
It is likely we’ll see Democrats recruiting good candidates in surprising places — possibly a signal of good things for Democrats in 2018.
* TRUMP CLAIMS VICTORY: One of Trump’s most ludicrous tweets yet, and that’s really saying something:
Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG “R” win with runoff in Georgia. Glad to be of help!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 19, 2017
For all of Trump’s “help,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the GOP runner-up, Karen Handel, who will face Ossoff in the runoff, never mentioned Trump in her speech last night.
* PROGRESSIVES SEE EXPANDING MAP: The left sees last night’s results as a sign that the House is in play — bigly — and that Democratic Senate incumbents in red states might be in better shape. Here’s Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas:
“What’s amazing is that we continue to see this level shift across the country, a 20-point swing, that puts about 123 Republican seats potentially in play. At that point, very little is off the map, and getting the 24 seats we need to take back the House is suddenly a real possibility, GOP gerrymander or not. It also potentially puts the Senate in play, while certainly protecting our endangered red-state incumbents. All of this, and we’re still in Trump’s supposed ‘honeymoon’ period!”
Remember, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price carried the Georgia district by 23 points. By contrast, Ossoff got 48.1 percent and the total GOP vote was just over 50 percent.
* DEMOCRATS THINK GEORGIA OUTCOME VALIDATES STRATEGY: Paul Kane gets this right:
Democrats believe that Ossoff’s performance … validated their emerging strategy of focusing on dozens of GOP seats in diverse, well-educated suburbs across the country in advance of next year’s elections. Price regularly won this seat north of Atlanta without breaking a sweat, but Trump won the region by just 1.5 percentage points last year. That signaled a potential vulnerability for several dozen Republicans in similar suburban areas.
Many of the GOP-held seats that Democrats will be targeting in 2018 are similar, with larger-than-average concentrations of college-educated whites who might be souring on Trump’s performance.
* THE PROBLEM REPUBLICANS FACE IN GEORGIA: Republicans are relieved to have GOP winner Karen Handel facing Ossoff in a head-to-head. But former GOP representative David Jolly makes a good point here:
“The Republican in the runoff will have to struggle to figure out, is it my job to defend Trump, who has a historic unpopularity right now, or is it not? But Ossoff gets to talk non-stop about how the last 100 days are bad.”
How Handel manages this will bear watching.
* U.S. MAY REMAIN IN IRAN DEAL: CNN reports:
* ON RUSSIA, TRUMP IS INCREASINGLY ISOLATED: Greg Miller reports that Trump still hopes to pursue warm relations with Russia, putting him at odds with his top advisers:
Trump appears increasingly isolated within his own administration. Over the past several weeks, senior members of Trump’s national security team have issued blistering critiques of Moscow, using harsh terms that have led to escalating tensions between the countries and seem at odds with the president. The harsh rhetoric … suggests that Russian skeptics have gained influence in the administration, making the rapprochement that Trump envisioned seem increasingly remote.
One wonders whether those senior advisers — unlike Trump — also want to see a full, independent probe of Russian meddling in our election.