Democrat Jon Ossoff didn't win a special election for a Georgia congressional seat on Tuesday night. But he'll live to fight another day — specifically in a June runoff against former GOP secretary of state Karen Handel.
It's not the Cloud Nine scenario that some Democrats had hoped for in this uber-hyped special election. But that a Democrat made it this far in Republican territory — he was the top vote-getter out of 18 mostly GOP candidates — is an impressive political feat.
And as much as we can extrapolate from one single Atlanta suburb, Ossoff's near-win portends Democratic strength going into the 2018 congressional midterms. If the stars align for them even close to how they did in this district, Democrats could take back the House of Representatives. They'll need the help of traditional Republicans and a liberal base not thrilled with President Trump, but those were both factors in this Georgia congressional race.
Democrats don't even really need to win this June runoff, held to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, to take back the House. In 2018, Republicans will be defending 23 seats that Clinton won. If Democrats can net 24 seats, they would recapture the majority.
Depending on what data you use, there are some 70 to 90 congressional districts considered more competitive for Democrats. Tuesday's special election didn't even make a list of 60 that the House Democrats' campaign arm said earlier this year it wanted to target.
But it jumped on the map in a big way thanks to a fired-up liberal base. Ossoff was practically carried by anti-Trump, grass-roots momentum both inside the district and outside it. When he entered the race in January, he was an unknown, 30-year-old Democrat with no legislative experience. By the end of the race, he was a much better-known 30-year-old with no legislative experience who had raised an insane $8.3 million.
The fact he was even competitive is mind-blowing to Washington Democrats. Republicans have held this seat for 37 years. Price won it by 24 points just a few months ago.
“Even in our wildest dreams in August of last year, I don't think anyone thought that Tom Price's House district was up for grabs,” Neil Sroka, spokesman for the progressive Democracy for America, said earlier this week.
Democrats scrambled to provide the infrastructure to help Ossoff to his near-win, an early test for their party unity and organization. The proof will be in how many voters they turned out who didn't show up in November. But early signs are good: Ossoff exceeded their off-the-record expectations of capturing 40 to 45 percent of the vote. He got 48 percent of the vote, almost exactly the share of four of the top GOP candidates combined.
Speaking of Republicans, let's talk about a potentially disenchanted minority that this race may have pulled back the curtain on. We definitely learned that Republican voters in this suburban, educated, wealthy district are very wary of Trump. Or rather, this race underscored that.
The district went for Mitt Romney in 2012 by more than 20 points, but for Trump by a little more than a percentage point. With regard to Tuesday's special election, most voters in a special congressional election are thinking big picture rather than granular, so an average vote could be considered a repudiation on the direction of the country so far as much as for a candidate.
“I think it's pretty clear,” nonpartisan elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg said earlier this month, “Republicans in this kind of district are uncomfortable with Donald Trump.”
Ten minutes into a speech claiming the second spot in the Sixth District runoff, Karen Handel hadn't mentioned the words "Donald Trump."
— Jim Galloway (@politicalinsidr) April 19, 2017
Despite major outside money, FAKE media support & eleven Republican candidates, BIG "R" win with runoff in Georgia. Glad to be of help! -DJT
— President Trump (@POTUS) April 19, 2017
It could be that this district is naturally trending away from a Trump-era Republican Party. But it seemed to be a perfect test ground to witness what a fired-up minority and a disenchanted majority can do against the backdrop of an unpopular first-term president. If that comes together for Democrats elsewhere in the country, well, that's the stuff wave elections are made of.
Here comes the giant, hulking caveat to every word above: There are still more unknowns than knowns in the battle for the House. The 2018 election is 567 days away, which might as well be a century in politics. Trump is historically unpopular, but that could change. Republicans can't get their act together to repeal Obamacare like many voters in this district conceivably want, but that could change.
There are also race-specific factors that make Democrats' performance less sterling than they might make it out to be. The Republican field might as well have been a field of a million — there were 11 candidates, some of whom had their own high-profile supporters back in Washington. When voters in this district are faced with just one Democrat and just one Republican, will they really choose the Democrat?
Maybe, say Democrats. And they're not out of place to hope. As we learned in a special election in Kansas last week, and again on Tuesday, anything's possible for Democrats, even/especially the inconceivable. And Democrats capturing the House majority is much more conceivable than being competitive in this race was just a few months ago.