The Memo: Trump vote proves resilient in Georgia special election win

The Memo: Trump vote proves resilient in Georgia special election win
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The GOP victory in Georgia’s special election runoff on Tuesday has given Republicans new hope that their vote — and President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN analyst Kirsten Powers: Melania's jacket should read 'Let them eat cake' CNN's Cuomo confronts Lewandowski over 'womp womp' remark Sessions says FBI agent Peter Strzok no longer has his security clearance MORE’s support — could be more resilient than anyone thought, even in the affluent suburban districts that will determine control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections.

Karen Handel, Georgia’s former secretary of State, held off Democrat Jon Ossoff by almost 4 percentage points in the state’s 6th District in the northeast suburbs of Atlanta. 

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Ossoff, who raised more than $23 million, ended up performing worse than Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSessions says FBI agent Peter Strzok no longer has his security clearance Melania Trump puzzles with 'I really don't care' jacket Grassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report MORE did last November, when she lost the district by a single point to Trump.

The days leading up to the special election runoff had seen speculation from Democrats as well as media pundits that Trump would prove a serious drag on Handel’s chances. 

The president’s job performance hovers at around 40 percent of Americans, according to the most recent RealClearPolitics (RCP) average of polling. His political brand, which appeals most strongly to lower-income white voters, was said to be unappealing in a district that is one of the most highly educated in the nation and where the median income is more than $75,000.

Several polls in the closing days of the race gave Ossoff an edge, while the RCP average showed a de facto dead heat. 

The fact that Handel outperformed the polls heartens the GOP in general, and some in Trump’s orbit in particular. They believe that the president is being underestimated yet again, just as he was when polls predicted his defeat in the crucial states that determined the outcome of the presidential election.

Sam Nunberg, who worked as an aide on Trump’s presidential campaign, asserted that Democrats “misread the president’s approval numbers” to suggest he faced certain electoral doom.

Nunberg noted that, in addition to the Georgia result, the GOP has held on to the three other competitive special elections that have taken place during Trump’s first months in office. Democrats held on to one safe seat, in California’s 34th District, in a special election held earlier this month.

“At the end of the day, the Republicans have kept every single [competitive] special election seat,” Nunberg said.

He contrasted the Georgia result to the shock victory won by Republican Scott Brown in January 2010 in a special election to succeed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). The Massachusetts result, he said, “was a real indication there was going to be a major wave for the Republicans” in the midterm elections that occurred 10 months later.

Trump and his top aides crowed about the Georgia result as the returns came in. “Well, the Special Elections are over and those that want to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN are 5 and O! All the Fake News, all the money spent = 0,” Trump tweeted just before midnight Tuesday. 

“Thanks to everyone who breathlessly and snarkily proclaimed #GA0-6 as a ‘referendum on POTUS @realDonaldTrump,’ ” counselor Kellyanne Conway tweeted. “You were right. #winning.” 

If Handel suffered any headwinds from a combination of her association with Trump and the vast sum Ossoff raised, the damage was nowhere close to the scale Democrats had hoped. 

Although her margin of victory was much narrower than that enjoyed by her predecessor, then-Rep. Tom Price, in his recent elections, Handel’s total vote of around 135,000 was strikingly similar to the number who voted for Price in the 2014 midterms. 

A new round of Democratic infighting has broken out in the wake of the result.

Some members of the party have pinned blame on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Republican groups ran ads linking Ossoff to Pelosi and casting both politicians as outside the mainstream. Pelosi’s internal critics argue that she makes it more difficult for the party to connect with independent-minded voters in the South and Midwest.

Pelosi’s defenders pushed back with vigor against those charges. Her deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, asserted on Twitter that she is the party’s “best strategist and consensus builder,” adding that Republicans would “target any effective Dem leader.”

But behind the scenes, Democratic strategists have expressed concern that the party is relying too much on the idea that anti-Trump fervor among its base will lead to victory.

“The mistake is to look at polls showing Trump is down, and to think that means Democrats are up,” said one strategist who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “That is clearly not true because we keep losing! We keep seeing the same movie and expecting a different outcome.”

The problem could be particularly severe because many of the top Democratic targets for 2018 — a list that is centered on 23 districts held by Republicans where Clinton prevailed in the presidential vote — bear close demographic similarities to the Georgia contest.

“This was the kind of district that they were going to need to win if they are going to get back into the majority,” said Republican pollster David Winston.

Winston cautioned that the GOP could not take anything for granted. But, he added, “as Republicans begin to see an agenda that is being evolved, that is uniting the party. As you move away from personalities into policy, the party is behaving in a much more unified manner.”

Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist and an early Trump supporter, saw vindication for Trump in the outcome in Georgia.

“Polls just don’t seem to capture where his relationship with the American voters is,” he said. “Trump’s resilience outside the Beltway is alive and well.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.