The Memo: Five Takeaways from Georgia’s special election

It was a big night for Republicans and a bad one for Democrats, as Georgia’s former Secretary of State Karen Handel held off 30-year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff by a wider margin than expected in a special election runoff in the state’s 6th District.

Democrats poured money into a race that became the most expensive House contest ever, but to no avail.

The result left President Trump and other Republicans crowing and Democrats shaking their heads.

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In a lower-profile contest in South Carolina’s 5th District, Republican Ralph Norman defeated Democrat Archie Parnell, making the GOP two-for-two on the night.

Here are five takeaways from the night.

Deep disappointment for Democrats

The big prize was in Georgia, and Ossoff’s 4-point loss was a bitter pill for Democrats to swallow, even as they sought comfort in talk of “moral victories” in the aftermath.

Many Democrats had believed that Ossoff was on his way to an upset win, channeling liberal distaste with Trump nationwide to rake in fundraising dollars while making a centrist pitch to voters in the suburban Atlanta district.

The dollars came rolling in but the votes did not. Handel’s win was comparatively comfortable, given polls showing a neck-and-neck race, anecdotal accounts of intense Democratic enthusiasm and Ossoff’s success in raising more than $23 million — an astronomical sum for a House race.

Questions are already being asked about Ossoff’s strategy, but the bottom line is that Democrats on Tuesday lost their fourth competitive special election of the Trump presidency.

It remains to be seen whether the defeats sap the spirits of financial donors and grassroots volunteers. But they are dispiriting for the party. It must come to terms with the fact that the anti-Trump sentiments its supporters feel so keenly are not a guarantee of electoral success.

A win for Ossoff on Tuesday would have bolstered Democrats’ confidence that they could retake the House majority in November 2018. Instead, there are graver doubts than before and a realization that the party faces a steep climb.

While then-Rep. Tom Price (R) won reelection in the district by 23 points last November, Trump edged out Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE by only a single point. It’s a sobering fact for Democrats that, after all the hype, Ossoff did worse than Clinton.

Republican nerves are soothed — for now

Handel’s victory will calm GOP angst over Trump, at least for the moment.

Make no mistake, there is massive concern within Republican ranks about Trump’s unpopularity and its potential electoral consequences.

But Handel’s win suggests that the GOP may not face a midterm apocalypse after all.

The Georgia result will also make it easier for party officials to persuade vulnerable incumbents to run for reelection. It will boost fundraising efforts too.

Even more importantly, at least from the White House’s perspective, it might reassure Republicans that they should toe the president’s line as tough votes loom on the plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, as well as other subjects such as tax reform.

For the White House, a win in a Trump referendum

The dynamics of the Georgia race were complicated where Trump was concerned. 

Handel took care not to tie herself too closely to the president, but he tweeted his support for her on the morning of Election Day. 

Anti-Trump ire among Democrats helped fill Ossoff’s coffers, but he largely avoided the kind of vivid campaign rhetoric favored by left-wing icons such as Sens. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies Clip shows Larry David and Bernie Sanders reacting after discovering they're related For now, Trump dossier creates more questions than answers MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOvernight Finance: Lawmakers grill Equifax chief over hack | Wells Fargo CEO defends bank's progress | Trump jokes Puerto Rico threw budget 'out of whack' | Mortgage tax fight tests industry clout Michelle Obama is exactly who the Democrats need to win big in 2020 Wells Fargo chief defends bank's progress in tense Senate hearing MORE (D-Mass.).

There had been plenty of speculation that upscale Republican voters in Georgia who backed Trump with reluctance last November could desert the party after his turbulent first five months.

That didn’t happen, which suggests Trump’s support could be more resilient than skeptics think. 

The president himself was characteristically ebullient on his favorite medium in the aftermath. 

“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,” he wrote on Twitter just before midnight on Tuesday. 

Close aides amplified the argument.

"Thanks to everyone who breathlessly and snarkily proclaimed #GA06 as a ‘referendum on POTUS @realDonaldTrump.’ ” tweeted White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. “You were right. #winning.”

The power of money has its limits

To lose a House race for which you have raised $23 million, as Ossoff did, is quite an achievement. 

In fairness to the Democrat, however, his opponent had outside groups galloping to her aid. The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanThe Hill Interview: Budget Chair Black sticks around for now Gun proposal picks up GOP support GOP lawmaker Tim Murphy to retire at end of term MORE (R-Wis.), spent around $13 million on Handel’s behalf.

There is a never-ending debate among political professionals as to whether fundraising can reach a saturation point, after which further expenditure on TV ads and other campaign staples becomes ineffective.

Those who argue that there is had their case strengthened by the outcome in Georgia.

Democratic infighting ramps up

Squabbling among Democrats and liberals began before the final results were in from Georgia. The debate was conducted in raw terms.

The central issue was whether Ossoff had run too timorous and centrist a campaign to fire up the base. But, between the lines, it was easy to discern the pain of a party still struggling to come to terms with Trump’s victory over Clinton last November. 

“One important lesson is that when they go low, going high doesn't f**king work,” Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal Center for American Progress, wrote on Twitter. 

Jim Dean, the chairman of the left-wing Democracy for America political action committee, lamented in an emailed statement, “Most candidates do not have the luxury of lighting millions of dollars on fire by spending close to $12 million on ads behind an uninspiring message.”

But others argued that the correct lessons to draw from the result were very different. 

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) tweeted that the outcome in Georgia needed to be a “wake up call” for the party. “Time to stop rehashing 2016 and talk about the future,” he said in one tweet, while emphasizing in a follow-up that the party needed to create “a bigger tent not a smaller one.”

Amid all the drama of the Trump presidency, the depth of divisions among Democrats — and the continuing rancor between centrists and progressives dating back to the Clinton-Sanders primary fight last year — has often been underreported.

There was no papering over the cracks after the Georgia disappointment.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE’s presidency.