The special election for the open congressional seat in Georgia was the most expensive in history, with an obscene $60 million in total spending. Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate, narrowly lost in the upscale, suburban sixth district, which is heavily Republican.
The chattering classes will speculate endlessly on what this special election means for the 2018 midterms. The election was seen as a referendum on Trump. Ossoff lost by about 4 percent in a district that has gone Republican for decades. He outspent his Republican opponent, Karen Handel, yet he garnered a smaller share of the vote than Hillary Clinton received against Trump in 2016.
For all the sound and fury, this signifies very little for 2018. For many voters, and surely for Trump’s supporters, the administration has just settled into office and still deserves a chance. Trump’s policies haven’t taken hold yet. Thus far he’s coasting on the Obama economy. Trump’s health-care, tax, and budget plans haven’t been passed. His stealth escalation across the Middle East hasn’t yet stumbled into open war. The 2018 elections, 17 months away, will take place in a very different atmosphere.
Special elections get special attention. When $60 million floods a congressional district, it’s enough to rouse even the dead. The evident Democratic enthusiasm advantage got muted as even disengaged Republicans responded in the hothouse atmosphere.
Incompetence and corruption are becoming the brand of the Trump White House. The outrage and mobilization of the activist base of the Democratic Party will continue to build. In Trump, Democrats have one of the greatest fund-raising and voter-mobilization engines ever. There are more than 70 Republican districts that vote more Democratic than Georgia’s sixth. Republicans may have dodged a bullet this time, but in 2018 they’ll likely be facing a fusillade.
But Democrats will first need better candidates. For party pros, Jon Ossoff was close to an ideal candidate. Young, well educated, attractive, and articulate, the 30-year-old tailored his views to fit the suburban district. He presented himself as a centrist, speaking boldly against government waste and federal deficits, and talking, as his opponent put it, “like a Republican.” He championed civility and decried partisan division. He explicitly opposed Medicare for All and tax hikes on the rich. He wouldn’t even commit to voting for Nancy Pelosi as the leader of his party. He chose not to make the election a referendum on Trump.
Democratic activists provided money and energy anyway, but too few Republicans were swayed. Even in defeat, Ossoff could not rise above pabulum: His race, he said, was the “beginning of something bigger,” because “In the first opportunity in this country to make a statement about how values can still unite people at a time when politics has been dominated by fear, hatred and scapegoating and division, this community stood up.”