(CNN)The facile headlines the morning after the Georgia 6th donnybrook wrote themselves:
Republicans triumphant! Democrats in disarray!
Politics ain’t horseshoes. A loss is a loss and Democrats lost a race they had hoped to win Tuesday night. Republicans escaped a disaster that would have sent tremors through Capitol Hill. The shaky effort to scrap Obamacare escaped a potentially deadly setback, as a loss would have further shaken timorous Senate Republicans at a critical juncture.
Yet the deeper meaning of Tuesday’s results is more nuanced. Democrats should be disappointed but not despondent, having lost a race in which they invested great hope and resources into Jon Ossoff. Republicans, and an embattled President, should be relieved but not exultant, having elected Karen Handel and holding on in a district the party has dominated for four decades.
There were some reasons for Democratic optimism going in. Donald Trump carried Georgia’s 6th Congressional District by just a hair in 2016. The district’s upscale, highly educated voters were more resistant to the bombastic President than his hardscrabble base.
Yet, despite the fervent desire of national Democrats to turn the race into a referendum on Trump, the Georgia 6th proved to be fool’s gold; alluring because of its makeup yet, still, at its core, a conservative district.
Ossoff’s best — and now it’s clear — only chance to win was in the April “jungle primary” when he was the consensus choice of Democrats on the ballot with more than 10 Republicans. Political pros in both parties said then that if Ossoff failed to win outright in the first round, capturing less than 50.1% while Republicans squabbled among themselves, he would likely fail in a runoff, when the GOP machine could coalesce around one candidate and train all their artillery on him.
Handel was not a stellar candidate, but as a former officeholder and longtime community presence, she was a comfortable choice for Republicans. She also was the beneficiary of a hellacious anti-Ossoff campaign that painted the moderate newbie as a spear-carrier for Nancy Pelosi and the left.
It was enough to fend off the 30-year-old, who, buoyed by online donations, became the best funded House candidate in history.
The Republicans hung on but not without lingering questions. A 4 point win in a district they have customarily carried by 20 should be a cause for concern.
Their less noticed and even narrower victory Tuesday in South Carolina for the seat vacated by Trump Budget Director Mick Mulvaney should be even more alarming to the GOP.
Absent the monumental effort the GOP and supporting oligarchs waged on Handel’s behalf, increased Democratic enthusiasm and turnout turned an expected blowout into a barn-burner. The winner, Ralph Norman, won by an even slimmer margin than Handel in a district Mulvaney carried by 20 last fall, defeating the relatively unknown and underfunded Archie Parnell.
If I were the GOP, which now has won four special elections since the fall in Republican strongholds by significantly smaller margins than are customary, I would be concerned.
Democrats are glum. Younger party leaders in Congress are grumbling at Pelosi and their Old Guard leaders. The Bernie Sanders left is all over moderates, charging that Ossoff was too tepid — a foolish argument, considering the nature of the district.
The results warrant little of this.
Despite their disappointment, Democrats should find some encouragement in the weak performance of Republicans in the four House specials that were all decidedly home games for the GOP. Instead, the party should be focusing on 2018, and the 23 Republican-held House seats in districts where Hillary Clinton bested Trump last year.
While it would take a larger wave than is evident today, a Democratic sweep of these seats would land the party close to the 24 it needs to take control next year.
That won’t happen unless Democrats recruit, support and nominate candidates whose roots are deeper and messages more clear and who are a better fit for their districts than Ossoff and Parnell. And internecine warfare between the Bernie wing and more moderate factions will continue to be a sideshow that could limit Democratic gains in the House.
But Tuesday’s results should be neither discouraging to Democrats nor intoxicating for Republicans.
They point to a 2018 campaign for the House that is as likely to be competitive today as it was before the votes from Georgia were counted.
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