The Georgia special congressional election to replace HHS secretary Tom Price was billed as a big test for the strength of the anti-Trump resistance, so Democrat Jon Ossoff’s loss is a win for the president and his party. However, since the Georgia race (and surprisingly, the South Carolina special election) also yielded concerning results for Republicans — and partisan gloating isn’t very presidential — Trump was restrained in his response.
We’re kidding, of course. In addition to two tweets congratulating Karen Handel and Ralph Norman, the president thanked Fox News for describing their victories as a “huge win” for him personally.
Then he declared that winning every relatively safe GOP seat vacated by someone now serving in his administration was a huge vindication for his agenda.
(Democrats actually held on to a congressional seat in a California special election earlier this month, but everyone knows the most populous state doesn’t count when you’re measuring the size of Trump’s victories.)
Naturally, Kellyanne Conway could not resist an opportunity to crow about the president #winning:
And in a text the Trump campaign expressed its glee in the Trumpiest terms possible, proclaiming, “The MAGA Mandate is stronger than ever. BIG LEAGUE.”
To those who spent the past few months explaining, sometimes with visual aids, that losing the popular vote by 3 million gives the president an overwhelming mandate, sure, Tuesday night was a “big league” win for Trump. However, others saw the close elections in two traditionally red districts more as a narrowly averted GOP disaster.
National Review’s Jonah Goldberg said Republicans spending an obscene amount of money to hold on to a safe GOP seat “is not a sign of Republican health,” though it is a victory “in the realm of spin, appearances, and momentum”:
It’s also a win for Donald Trump for one simple and obvious reason: because the alternative would have been so much worse for him. If Handel had lost, it would have hardened the media narrative that Republicans are fleeing the president (note: I said narrative, not fiction. The man is at 72 percent among Republicans, but that’s down eleven points in two months). A Handel loss would probably have led to actual politicians fleeing the president. Meanwhile, if Ossoff had won, Democrats would have been even more emboldened. They could go to donors and say, “We bought a seat in a Republican district with a hipster dufus candidate, who got trolled into getting engaged. If we do it 23 more times, we get a Democratic House, a Speaker Pelosi, and maybe impeachment.”
Since coming close to victory doesn’t give Democrats another congressional seat, Tuesday’s race will likely leave the left questioning its strategy heading into the midterms. Meanwhile, as the New York Times’ Frank Bruni predicts, Republican lawmakers will breathe a little easier, and Team Trump will be emboldened:
With Handel’s victory, Trump caught an enormous break and got fresh hope for his stalled legislative agenda. As he tries to persuade moderate Republicans to support a deeply flawed, broadly unpopular and ridiculously secrecy-shrouded health care bill, he can and will point to the outcome of the Georgia race, in which Handel sided with him and Ossoff pilloried her for it.
Republicans who have been agitated about the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and the president’s low approval ratings will be calmed somewhat, strengthening Trump’s hand.
And G.O.P. leaders and strategists will feel reassured that the party isn’t tethered entirely to Trump’s fortunes and, when it mobilizes its resources, can transcend his failings and all the melodrama he stirs up. In the final weeks of the Georgia race, outside Republican groups poured millions into the contest and worked feverishly to turn out the vote for Handel. Those frantic efforts obviously paid off.
In The Atlantic, David Frum argues that this may actually be a dangerous milestone for Republicans. A loss would have made them more cautious heading into the midterms, but instead the takeaway will be that there’s little risk in going all-in on Trumpism:
Republicans in Congress have also been encouraged to drive past their last off-ramp. Had the Democrats snatched the Georgia Sixth seat, perhaps some GOP senators might have succumbed to nerves about the repeal of Obamacare. Not now!
After Tuesday night, we are closer both to the repeal of Obamacare and to the firing of the special counsel investigating the Russia matter. Donald Trump may still grumble that congressional Republicans are mean. Congressional Republicans will continue to complain on background that the White House is crooked, chaotic, and compromised by Russia. But the high tension of the past has subsided; the distinctions between pro-Trump and anti-anti-Trump—between country club, Tea Party, and Trumpist factions—all are fading away. The Republicans of the Georgia Sixth were offered a safe and limited way to distance themselves from Trump, perhaps even to curb his excesses. They rejected it. He is theirs; they are his.
Perhaps in 16 months Republicans will be celebrating another, even more “big league” win. Or maybe they’ll find that placing their trust in the power of the “MAGA mandate” and downplaying the other lessons from the special elections was a risky call.