So what did Tuesday mean?
In this case, the flawed candidates were Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia — and, flying mostly under the national radar, Republican Ralph Norman and Democrat Archie Parnell.
The stakes were twofold. To a lesser extent, control of 0.46 percent of the United States House of Representatives. More broadly, though, it was control of perceptions of the direction of the country. Could the Democrats take two seats that had belonged to the Republicans, thanks to the missteps of an unpopular president? Or would the Republicans hold those seats, assuaging the concerns of a number of members of the party eyeing the 2018 midterms warily?
We now know the winners: The two Republicans. But we don’t really know the meaning.
For example. It is true that the Republicans won both of the races by wide enough margins to leave no doubt about the will of the people. But to what extent were these reassuring wins for the Republican Party?
Consider that last November both of the seats were won by Republican candidates by more than 20 points, but on Tuesday night by fewer than 4. But then, one of a million caveats: Last November featured two well-known incumbent Republicans brushing off unknown (and relatively weak) Democrats. Surely it’s not comparable?
Broadly, the pattern in the four contested special elections has been big shifts to the Democrats. The Republicans won all four races (including one in Kansas and one in Montana), but the Democratic candidates did better than their party’s candidates had in the 2016 House races, in the 2016 presidential race or in the 2012 presidential race.
With one exception: Ossoff did worse in Georgia’s sixth congressional district than Hillary Clinton did last year.
Now we layer on more complexity. Such as the fact that there have been five special House elections so far this year, with the Democrats easily holding one up for grabs in California. Sure, it was a district that Clinton won by more than 70 points, but the Republicans didn’t even make the runoff there.
Another layer: The Handel-Ossoff race was supposed to be the barnburner on Tuesday. As it turned out, though, and as you can see from the graph above, the closest race of the four ended up being the one to which the least national attention was paid, that sleepy race in South Carolina.
All four races took place on turf that favored the Republicans. To what extent did national media attention bolster the partisanship factor?
Our David Weigel argues that this was the key to Handel’s win in Georgia: Ossoff had House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hung around his neck in TV ads and mail for weeks. He became a proxy for the party nationally, a position that the president was happy to reinforce on Twitter. And it’s hard to see how it did him much good. In South Carolina, Parnell largely avoided that fate — and ran closer.
If that’s the case, it actually can be seen as good news for the Democrats in 2018. After all, it’s a lot harder to bring the Sauron-like stare of national media and presidential attention onto 100 House races at once — or even two dozen. (Not to mention, of course, flooding each district with millions of dollars.) Depending on the playing field at that point, how many races are reasonably contestable, that could be a benefit to the left.
But perhaps, too, we were misreading the role of the Handel-Ossoff race. We were meant to understand that this was a bellwether race because it was a district that was trending in the Democrats’ direction. In 2012, Mitt Romney won it by 23 points, but Donald Trump won it by less than 2. The South Carolina seat, though, became more Republican, jumping from Romney’s 11.5-point win to an 18.5-point victory for Trump. One moving one way; the other, another. One, a suburban swing district; the other, mostly rural. Therefore, the thinking went, Ossoff was the better bet.
Maybe this pattern was, instead, just about the players. Maybe it was just a function of the split in the GOP, the Romney Republicans vs. the Trump Team, and, absent Trump on the ballot, the Georgia district simply reverted to form. In the primary, Ossoff earned 48.1 percent of the vote against a bevy of Republicans. In the general — he won 48.1 percent of the vote, meaning that the party lines barely budged an inch.
In the four contested House races, the results of 2012 presidential vote ended up being more strongly correlated to the special election outcomes than either the 2016 House or presidential vote. Not strongly but, still.
So we go back to our original question: Now what?
We know that Democrats did better in these districts than Democrats had in the past. We also know that they lost anyway. As with so much of politics, we’re left eyeballing scattered tea leaves at the bottom of a deep mug — and seeing what we want to see.
Maybe Karen Handel will be the next representative of Georgia’s 6th district because, as the president triumphantly tweeted on Tuesday night, voters there simply wanted to “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.” Or maybe the torrential rain in the district tamped down turnout from less-frequent voters, a group that tends to vote Democratic. Maybe Trump himself won because his message shifted the national consciousness, or may be it was because James Comey sent Congress a letter.
As with so many things in politics, it is hard to say. And by the time 2018 rolls around, all of the characters and circumstances will be different anyway.