Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff by four points in the most expensive US House race in history. In a lesser watched special election, Republican Ralph Norman beat Democrat Archie Parnell by only three points. The Georgia race embodied the hopes of Democrats and fears of Republicans while the South Carolina was virtually ignored because it wasn’t supposed to be close.
Democrats have a problem managing expectations. Liberal activists set a high bar, demanding a win to define success. Money and people from across the country poured into the suburbs of Atlanta to give Ossoff a boost. They bragged about low-dollar contributions, manpower and enthusiasm. They learned that the resistance only goes so far. In placing the spotlight on GA-06, they set off the alarm bells that rallied Republicans to give Handel the support she needed to hold onto the reliably Republican district.
In contrast, the South Carolina caught little attention. Parnell was a good candidate in a district that should have been safe for Republicans. Instead, he gave Norman a run for his money. Maybe Parnell did so well because he didn’t have so much attention. And maybe the Ossoff race wouldn’t have been much different if the whole country hadn’t been watching.
Beyond the hype, though, the trends are very good for Democrats. In every special election, they’ve been competing in districts long held by Republicans and in every election, the Democrats have outperformed. The biggest takeaway from the Georgia contest should be progressives’ commitment to supporting competitive races. Their low-dollar contributions and the boots-on-the-ground should be encouraging going into 2018.
To put things in perspective, Democrats won five special elections and lost none in 2009. In 2010, they lost in the largest wave since the 1930s. The special elections should be seen as practice, not bellwethers.
All that said, Democrats will need to be strategic to take back the House. They need strong candidates and while they should recruit everywhere, they need to spend their resources wisely. If these specials are showing Democrats anything, it’s that even with good candidates and enough resources, some districts are not winnable. More resources from Democrats probably wouldn’t have won South Carolina, Kansas or Montana because, as Georgia showed, Republicans can match the enthusiasm of the resistance with their base voters when they become alarmed.