Here’s what we didn’t learn Tuesday night in Georgia’s special election: how people feel about Donald Trump.
We already knew the race, which pitted Democrat Jon Ossoff against Republican Karen Handel, would come down to a few thousand votes after an absurd amount of money was spent on the election. We also already knew it would only represent a very weird district that Trump won by just 1.5 points in the 2016 presidential election — but also reelected Republican Tom Price to Congress by 23 points.
Still, last night’s results were devastating for Democrats, as Handel defeated Ossoff by 4 points.
Democrats got their hopes up after overperforming in the Kansas and Montana special elections. But they still lost those races, and the Georgia Sixth was supposed to be their best opportunity to get a win.
Now we’re going to see storylines about Democrats being unable to win close elections, even though this race came down to the wire — and even though Republicans have won this district for decades by at least 20 points, if not much, much more.
Republicans lost a lot of ground in both of Tuesday’s special election
Democrats’ hopes in this election were built on months of polling that showed Ossoff in the lead or at least neck and neck with Handel.
But it’s important to frame Ossoff’s performance in the wider context, which is that he lost by just 4 points in a district that Republicans have dominated:
Sure, this is a district that favored Trump by just 1.5 points in the presidential election and a district that has all the characteristics of a place Democrats could turn.
But it’s part of a larger trend of the Republican margins in these areas shrinking.
In South Carolina’s special election yesterday, Republican Ralph Norman defeated Democrat Archie Parnell by just 3 points. In the previous three elections in the South Carolina Fifth District, Republicans won by an average of 19 points — the same margin by which Trump won last fall.
We saw swings in Montana and Kansas too
The special election in the Kansas Fourth was expected to be a Republican landslide, like it always is. The previous three general elections were decided by 30 points or more.
But Republican Ron Estes defeated Democrat James Thompson by just 7 points in April’s election, which is the closest Democrats have been to winning the seat since 1996.
This is a district Trump won by 27 points, so this likely means Democrats closed the margin with a strong showing from the post-Trump, post-health care bill backlash:
In Montana, Republican Greg Gianforte defeated Democrat Rob Quist by just 6 points. The previous three general elections were decided by an average of 14 points, and Trump won the district by 21 points.
Of course, part of that gain might’ve been because Gianforte assaulted a reporter on the day before the election. Still, the gains were formidable:
The difference between those two districts and the Georgia Sixth is that they both supported Trump by wide margins, despite all of these districts heavily supporting the Republican candidate for Congress in the general election.
So in Georgia, the #NeverTrump voters likely played a role in the results.
It’s still demoralizing, but there’s a ray of sunlight
The storyline we’ll hear in the emotional aftermath of this election is that Democrats lost four straight special elections, despite months of a Republican president being mired in scandal and a Republican Congress playing hot potato with an unpopular health bill. And no matter how much Ossoff shrank the Republican margin of victory, he still lost — he’s still not a Congress member, and Democrats still don’t have that seat.
That doesn’t sound good, especially for a party that will likely be working to keep momentum and recruit good candidates to take back the House on what will likely be razor-thin margins in 2018.
But those charts above show something quite astounding: Republican margins of victory in these districts have shrunk to single digits, after being GOP strongholds for decades. There is a huge and measurable backlash to the results of the 2016 election.