Opinion writer

As promised, the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District was nip and tuck for much of the night. Republican Karen Handel nevertheless eked out a win over newcomer Jon Ossoff, a Democrat. In a rational political atmosphere, neither side would take great comfort from nor be seized with panic because of a race determined by a few percentage points. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that this special election took place in an overwhelmingly Republican congressional district. But with tens of millions spent on a single race, and both sides determined to extract some indication of its national fortunes — provided it won! — the hype was unstoppable. And to some degree the hype itself becomes self-fulfilling: A psychological boost surely sways candidates’ and elected officials’ behavior. A GOP win makes Republicans less nervous about sticking with President Trump on health care or other issues; a Democratic win would have encouraged nervous Republicans to break with Trump and look out for their own interests. A GOP loss would have increased the chances of more GOP retirements before 2018; a GOP win, no matter how narrow, encourages incumbents to stick around for 2018.

So how do we assess the importance of the race?

The rational response is that this race does not indicate either that the Republicans are cooked in 2018 nor that they can breathe a sigh of relief and continue to cling to Trump. The district, we need to remember, went to Tom Price by 23 percentage points in 2016, and to Trump by only 1.5 points. If a district rated as safely Republican in past years is now a virtual tossup, that’s one sign that Republicans under Trump have an uphill climb to reach highly educated, suburban voters. And, as the New York Times’ Alex Burns put it, “The Sixth is still a really Republican district, and the element of surprise was an asset Ossoff had in the first round but not the vote tonight.” If Democrats can be faulted, it was in unduly raising expectations in a district that is rated as 9.5 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole.

Democrats will continue to debate whether they should focus more on health care or on Trump’s scandals and whether to veer far left or hew to the center-left. Advocates of  the health-care-heavy approach would say the results would have been different had Ossoff concentrated even more intensely on the GOP’s plans to roll back the Affordable Care Act. In reality, the Democrats did exceptionally well in a district no one would have expected them to win six months ago with an atmosphere in which both health care and Trump’s Russia scandal were front and center. Unfortunately for Democrats, the race will not resolve the internal debate as to where the party should put its emphasis. Moreover, by the time 2018 rolls around, Trumpcare will either be a reality or have crashed and burned.

There are three lessons we might tentatively extract. First, we are seeing the parties divide on class and educational lines; how quickly that takes place and how effectively each party is able to find new voters while holding on to a chunk of its existing electorate will determine the results in 2018 and 2020. Second, both sides have nearly 18 months before the “real” midterms. Rather than dwell on the Georgia 6th District election, both would do well to intensify recruitment and use the remainder of the year to drive home their policy messages. Finally, we should remember that the single biggest determinant of midterm results is the favorability of the sitting president. Right now, that should keep Republicans up at night.

Democrats can take solace in seeing their candidates vastly overperform in what should be easy seats for Republicans. Nevertheless, nothing can compete with tallying an outright win. A Democratic victory would have sent a wave of panic through GOP ranks. A loss leaves them anxious, if not a bit exasperated. For now, Republicans averted outright disaster.