In the end, Ossoff earned far more votes than any other candidate — but not enough to earn an outright majority, forcing a runoff in June. For Republicans, this was a relief, given that there was some speculation that Ossoff would hit the 50 percent mark Tuesday. Trump cagily positioned anything less than an Ossoff majority as a win for Republicans — and himself — but it’s safer to say that the party simply held off disaster.
It’s certainly true that Georgia’s 6th Congressional District is more favorable territory than the Kansas 4th, where Democrats made a run at stealing a seat left vacant when Trump elevated Mike Pompeo to run the CIA. (The 6th is vacant because Trump tapped Tom Price to run the Department of Health and Human Services.) But it’s still a Republican-leaning district, as made obvious by Price’s 2016 victory — he won reelection by 23.2 percentage points — and the fact that Trump won the district, according to analysis from DailyKos. But Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democatic presidential rival, did much better there than one might have expected, trailing Trump by only 1.5 points. If we compare the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index for the Georgia and Kansas seats with the 2016 results, the Kansas 4th is squarely in line with how you’d have expected Trump to fare (as indicated by the dashed trend line). The Georgia 6th isn’t; Clinton overperformed.
The easy way to read this is that Trump is less popular in the district than you may have expected. As The Washington Post’s Robert Costa noted on Twitter, the Republican candidates who aligned themselves most closely with Trump fared poorly — and the eventual winner, Karen Handel, was “meh” about the president when Costa spoke with her.
That played to Ossoff’s advantage. According to data compiled by the New York Times, Ossoff outperformed Clinton’s percentage of support in 159 of the 207 precincts in the district. The median margin by which he did better was 2.1 percentage points — in a lower-turnout election, but still. What’s more, Ossoff got a higher percentage of the vote in 102 precincts than Trump did — almost half — and the median margin by which he trailed Trump in those precincts was only 0.2 points. Overall, Daily Kos estimates that Trump got 48.3 percent of the vote in the Georgia 6th. Ossoff got 48.1 percent. That means that Trump’s trying to frame Ossoff’s results as a loss even though he did just about as well.
Of course, the runoff will not include a third party, as the Trump-Clinton contest did. As it stands, Ossoff’s 48.1 percent is the vast majority of the vote for Democrats in the race, while Handel’s 19.8 percent is less than half of all of the Republican votes. That’s a big part of the reason that Democrats hoped for a knockout blow Tuesday. The consolidated GOP vote in the special election (among 11 candidates) was larger than the consolidated Democratic vote (among five). In total, Republicans won a majority of the votes cast.
The dynamics change now, and Trump’s bravado will be put to the test. After all, Ossoff actually overperformed the polling, which had him at about 46 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight. An Emerson College poll from late last week put him at about 44 percent. This is a seat that Republicans should hold, if only because 80 percent of special elections don’t change hands between parties. But Trump’s relative unpopularity and the national focus on the seat make things complicated.
On Wednesday morning, Trump called Handel to congratulate her. The question now is whether Trump will actually campaign for her, giving up a weekend at Mar-a-Lago to appear with her at a rally to encourage Republicans to turn out on her behalf. Or, really, the question is whether she’d even want him to do that. Setting aside questions of how the parties will fare in 2018, the question of the moment is if a Republican president is an asset or a liability to a Republican candidate in a Republican district, three months into his presidency.
That, in a nutshell, answers one question about who won and who lost on Tuesday night.