Before Tuesday’s special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, many journalists were ready to declare a victory by Democrat Jon Ossoff proof the GOP is doomed to lose its congressional majorities next year. Flipping the seat would have shown definitively the Trump presidency is a kiss of death for Republican candidates. But Republican Karen Handel won, by 3.8 points, blowing these story lines into oblivion.
It was history’s most expensive House race: Mr. Ossoff had at least $31.2 million spent on his behalf to $22.7 million for Ms. Handel. These totals will grow when more campaign-finance reports come in. The Democrats did not spend their money well. While Mr. Ossoff won 48.1% to Ms. Handel’s 19.8% in the April 19 open primary, he received the same percentage Tuesday. Meantime, Ms. Handel won more votes than did the 11 GOP candidates combined two months ago.
It would be understandable if Republicans took this victory—the fourth in as many special congressional elections this year—as an opportunity to celebrate. But the GOP has important lessons to internalize too.
First, the ground game matters immensely. With multiple Republican hopefuls keeping the party apparatus neutral, only Democrats mounted an effective get-out-the-vote effort in April. But in June’s one-on-one race, the GOP dusted off its old GOTV manuals, deployed organizers, and did the basic work of canvassing and phoning to persuade and turn out voters.
Democrats increased Mr. Ossoff’s vote by more than 32,000 over his April showing. Yet the GOP rallied some 96,000 more votes for Ms. Handel by focusing on Republicans who didn’t vote in April and were unlikely to vote in June without special attention. The Congressional Leadership Fund spent $1 million on the ground game and digital ads targeted at 100,000 such voters. People who didn’t vote in April made up at least 22% of Tuesday’s turnout.
Tuesday’s results prove it is possible to make these contests about more than Donald Trump. Ms. Handel won 51.9% while data from one conservative super PAC suggested only 38% of voters approved of Mr. Trump. Enough swing voters apparently don’t believe every Republican candidate is responsible for everything the president says and does.
Anger at Mr. Trump alone won’t attract the swing voters Democrats need to take Congress. Plus, Mr. Trump isn’t inexorably destined to become less popular. His approval ratings could rise if he enacts reform legislation. Democrats must offer an attractive agenda to draw suburban voters while maintaining the outrage of their party’s left wing. The Georgia election shows how difficult that is, even with virtually unlimited campaign cash.
In open seats, the GOP needs to field candidates with records of getting things done in government, business or the military. Ms. Handel was an awkward candidate, but her record as Fulton County board chairman and Georgia secretary of state proved her effectiveness in office. This provided a strong contrast with Mr. Ossoff’s exaggerated résumé.
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Republicans would do well to encourage congressmen not to retire. Incumbency alone doesn’t guarantee victory, but independent and unaligned voters are often swayed by it. Passing ambitious legislation on the economy, tax reform, health care and defense could boost the incumbency advantage further. The fewer retirements, the more the party can focus limited resources on races truly at risk.
Finally, Democrats have done better at building the networks to generate massive small-dollar contributions over the internet for special elections, but it’s unclear how transferable that strength will be to the general election. Similarly, House Republicans have more resources at their party committee and super PACs, but it isn’t clear that will be sufficient to re-elect the GOP House majority.
After escaping defeat Tuesday, many Republicans felt not just relieved but exhilarated. It’s fine to take a moment to be happy at Tuesday’s outcome, but it was still a hard race in what should be a safe GOP district. The 2018 midterm elections won’t be pretty for Republicans, but the election Tuesday showed they don’t have to be a catastrophe.