Republicans and Democrats are clinging to the supposed lessons of the Karen Handel victory over Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. The first thing both sides should realize is we are in a season when lessons have a short life.
So if it is wise to know what we do not know, let’s measure the burst of reaction to this election against some broader possibilities.
First, Republicans are suddenly happy to say the vote was indeed a referendum on Donald Trump, a prospect they would have rejected if Handel had lost. But it is a large leap to conclude that her 52 percent vote total equals a 52 percent approval for Trump districtwide. It’s probably also true that more than half of voters did not wish to send a Democrat to Congress who would have joined the quixotic Nancy Pelosi quest to cobble together an impeachment effort.
And in many districts in the 2018 elections, that may be all Trump needs — voters who might not love his policies or his style, but are sufficiently tolerant of him to fend off the dog-and-pony show that would surely begin if Democrats were to regain the majority.
Because make no mistake, today’s Democrat power structure is not driven to merely oppose Trump on immigration, taxes, national security and climate policies; it lives to destroy him, presidentially and personally. The American left wants regime change, and it doesn’t want to wait for the 2021 inauguration.
Is that seething hatred for Trump a winning strategy for winning seats in Congress? The Ossoff case offers no clue. As Democrats go, he was uncommonly restrained in his criticism of the president, offering policy positions that suggested a moderate stance designed to win over affluent, educated suburban voters.
It didn’t work. Democrat strategists are wondering if they might have had better success with a sharper attack on Trump and a more liberal candidate, creating sharper lines of distinction.
They might have. The buzz is that one of Ossoff’s big obstacles was his failure to be sufficiently compelling. The centrist vote tends to lean Republican in Republican districts, especially the ones that have handed out GOP victories since the Jimmy Carter presidency.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution political reporter Greg Bluestein says he thinks Ossoff will challenge the incumbent Handel in a campaign that would have to gear up very soon for primaries less than a year away.
Don’t bet on it. If he couldn’t crack an open seat, it is unlikely he will bring the skillset to defeat an incumbent. He may even face skepticism among Democrats, who will apply the eternally unforgiving test question common to all politics: What happened in your last race? Bitter memories will be fresh.
Democrats have a larger problem. If Handel’s win was a referendum on Trump, Ossoff’s loss was surely a referendum on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Handel supporters deftly placed Pelosi around Ossoff’s neck in a barrage of ads designed to stain him with her stratospheric negatives among Republicans. Democrat hopefuls cannot be looking forward to the same fate across hundreds of districts next November.
So yes, the Georgia vote was a dodged bullet for Republicans and a gut-punch for Democrats. But many news cycles lie between this week’s instant analysis and the mid-terms. By then, will Trump free himself from the annoying and presently empty Russia scandals, perhaps even putting some points on the board in terms of legislative accomplishments? Or will the Russia fantasies sprout actual evidence, paralyzing his entire agenda?
That question will matter far more next year than any microanalysis of the Georgia result.
Mark Davis is a radio host in north Texas and a columnist for The Dallas Morning News.