A demoralising defeat for the Democrats

Republican Karen Handel © Rex Features
Republican Karen Handel took 52% of the vote

Special elections in the US usually “don’t mean very much”, says John Cassidy in The New Yorker. But Tuesday’s run-off election in Georgia’s “deep red” (ie, heavily Republican) sixth congressional district was an exception. That’s why it came with an estimated $50m price tag, making it the most expensive House race in US history. Had the Democrats won, it would have been a “major blow” to President Donald Trump and his Republican allies, and could have hindered the progress of the controversial Republican healthcare bill and other legislation. It would also have been seen as a taster of what is to come in the 2018 mid-term elections, when, says Robert Costa in The Washington Post, the Democrats need to “flip” 24 Republican seats to take back the House majority.

In the end, the Republican winner, Karen Handel, 55, took 52% of the vote. She thus saw off newcomer Jon Ossoff, the 30-year-old Democrat who launched his campaign with the pledge to “make Trump furious”. Yet nerves were high. Georgia’s sixth congressional district is a Republican safe seat. It was once held by Republican Newt Gingrich (the former House Speaker from 1979 to 1999), and the previous incumbent Tom Price (now Trump’s health secretary), carried the district by more than 23 points. Yet Trump’s approval rating here is just 35%.

However, despite the Trump-baiting launch slogan, Ossoff – who has been described as a “radically boring person to talk or listen to” – fought a polite, earnest campaign on a platform of fiscal responsibility, says Rhys Blakely in The Times. This was mainly because Democrats calculated that the sort of “fiery rage” often associated with supporters of Bernie Sanders might alienate both moderate Republicans and centrists, whose support Ossoff needed to have a chance of winning, says Paul Kane in The Washington Post.

Indeed, the Democrats were always going to be swimming against the tide in such an affluent area, even considering their candidate’s $23m war chest. Yet in Ossoff, the party had hoped that they had found a new way to defeat the Republicans with a “message of peace and civility”. Privately, however, Democrat strategists acknowledge that more aggressive anti-Trump campaigns would be used in “longtime swing districts” next year.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Handel deliberately steered a middle course too, says William McGurn in The Wall Street Journal. Special elections “frequently become referendums on the incumbent party”. As a result, Trump, with his vast local unpopularity, was her “greatest handicap”. Although the president held a fundraiser for Handel and recently tweeted his support, she pointedly avoided mentioning his name while out campaigning. During a debate with Ossoff, she insisted that she wasn’t “an extension of the White House”.

In this context, her success will reassure Republican leaders and strategists that the party isn’t “tethered entirely to Trump’s fortunes”, says Frank Bruni in The New York Times. It’s true that Handel’s charisma is “limited” and that her campaign was given a big boost by the Republicans’ successful efforts to paint Ossoff as a “dangerous liberal” who had been “hand-picked” by the reviled House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi. But she at least demonstrated one way to achieve a Republican victory in an area that isn’t fully supportive of Trump: “by being with him and without him at the same time”.

Ossoff’s defeat may be demoralising for the Democrats, but it’s important to remember that the Republican win came only after an “extraordinary financial intervention by conservative groups and the party’s leading figures (Handel’s $5m fund was topped up by at least $17m)”, says Kevin Liles in the same paper.  “What does such a hard-won victory… augur for Republicans who next year will be defending an array of less conservative seats outside the South?”