Karen Handel’s success owed a great deal to the assertiveness with which Republicans painted Ossoff as a liberal puppet, ready to have Nancy Pelosi pull his strings.
Make no mistake: Democrats were swimming against the current in Georgia. The House seat that their sights were on had been safely in Republican hands for nearly four decades. Georgia’s 6th District is purple only if you scrunch your eyes just so. If you un-scrunch them and look at it honestly, it’s red.
So the question isn’t what happened on Tuesday, when Karen Handel, the Republican candidate, prevailed over Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, in a special election with stakes and resonance well beyond the district’s parameters.
The question is what happens next. How do Democrats buoy their spirits, maintain their ardor and press on?
They ached for this seat. They fought for it fiercely. They reasoned that Ossoff had a real chance: Donald Trump, after all, won this district by just 1.5 percentage points. Donations for Ossoff flooded in, helping to make this the most expensive House race in history by far.
Democrats came up empty-handed nonetheless. So a party sorely demoralized in November is demoralized yet again — and left to wonder if the intense anti-Trump passion visible in protests, marches, money and new volunteers isn’t just some theatrical, symbolic, abstract thing.
When will it yield fruit? Where will it translate into results? And at what point will Trump be held accountable for a presidency that, so far, has been clumsier and more chaotic than even many of his detractors warned that it would be?
With Handel’s victory, Trump caught an enormous break and got fresh hope for his stalled legislative agenda. As he tries to persuade moderate Republicans to support a deeply flawed, broadly unpopular and ridiculously secrecy-shrouded health-care bill, he can and will point to the outcome of the Georgia race, in which Handel sided with him and Ossoff pilloried her for it.
Republicans who have been agitated about the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and the president’s low approval ratings will be calmed somewhat, strengthening Trump’s hand.
And GOP leaders and strategists will feel reassured that the party isn’t tethered entirely to Trump’s fortunes and, when it mobilizes its resources, can transcend his failings and all the melodrama he stirs up. In the final weeks of the Georgia race, outside Republican groups poured millions into the contest and worked feverishly to turn out the vote for Handel. Those frantic efforts obviously paid off.
Although her fumbles were many and her charisma in limited supply, she fashioned a model for how a Republican in a district that isn’t a ready-made Trump stronghold lurches across the finish line: by being with him and without him at the same time. Handel’s bid was mesmerizingly conflicted.
I’ve watched many campaigns I’d describe as moronic. Hers was oxymoronic.
She held a fundraiser with Vice President Mike Pence — but not a rally.
She backed Trump’s desired rollback of Obamacare, but during her two debates with Ossoff, she sidestepped any utterance of Trump’s name to a point where Jim Galloway, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, cracked that “the clothes have no emperor.”
“Let us be clear,” Galloway wrote in an analysis of the first debate. “There is a 70-year-old man with a battleship of a comb-over named Donald Trump, and he lives in the White House. He really, truly exists.”
Galloway was in fact noting that Ossoff, too, tended to steer away from Trump talk, and that will be discussed extensively and debated furiously in the days, weeks and months to come, as Democrats second-guess his approach and plot a path forward.
The party has been bitterly divided over whether that route should veer toward the left, which is where Bernie Sanders is beckoning it, or toward the center. Ossoff chose the latter, electing not to put his chips on the demonization of Trump, lest he offend all the district voters who had put faith in the president. His positions, in aggregate, were moderate.
I think that was the right call, given the demographics of this district, in the northern Atlanta suburbs. It’s no lefty enclave.
My guess is that Handel’s success owed a great deal to the assertiveness with which Republicans painted Ossoff as a liberal puppet, ready to have Nancy Pelosi pull his strings. Because he’s just 30, had a paltry record to invoke and seemed to be getting ahead of himself by running in a district in which he wasn’t even residing, he was ripe to be defined — and caricatured — by the other side.
That’s one lesson to take away from this: Candidates matter. And Ossoff’s defeat may make it more difficult for Democrats to recruit the best ones for the equally tough House races to come. Those ditherers craved encouragement, as did the party. It eludes all of them still.