The most expensive, closely scrutinized House race ever is over — but its effects are going to ricochet throughout the political landscape for the next year and a half.
Both parties spent the $50 million race for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District trying not only to win the seat but to test strategies, messages and ideas. And while Republican Karen Handel’s win over Democrat Jon Ossoff on Tuesday was ultimately a local event, it told us a lot about the national political environment — especially in the House of Representatives, where Democrats hope to challenge for the majority in 2018.
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The drawn-out race for the seat highlighted several major trends already at play in the 2018 elections, even though November 2018 is more than a year away. Here are POLITICO’s four big takeaways from the district and Handel’s win.
Republicans’ favorite Democrat
A lot has changed in the past seven years — in culture, in technology and especially in politics. There is at least one constant, though: House Republicans continue building their campaigns around House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi was the centerpiece of the multimillion dollar GOP campaign against Ossoff, starting in late March when the Democrat became a threat to capture the Republican seat. The young Democrat was a first-time candidate, so he didn’t come into the race with a voting record for Republicans to attack. But Republicans used the specter of Pelosi to activate their base, which was not fully engaged in the race a few months ago.
“Nancy Pelosi and her allies are pouring millions into his campaign,” a National Republican Congressional Committee ad intoned in early April. It was just one of many times the GOP used the California Democrat, from numerous TV ads to Handel’s attack lines against Ossoff in their televised debates.
Heading into the Georgia campaign, some Republicans were privately worried that their Pelosi attacks had lost steam since the GOP used them to great effect in taking back the House in 2010. But the party won’t think about abandoning that line after notching such a hard-fought win in Georgia.
Both parties are pouring money into the House
The candidates and parties spent well over $50 million combined on the Georgia special election, nearly twice as much as the previous record high for a House race. It was a financial anomaly — but it was also a leading indicator of serious money pouring into districts around the country.
Many of the same online donors who directed more than $23 million into Ossoff’s campaign have also been donating online to Democratic “nominee funds” in Republican-held districts. The liberal website Daily Kos has raised over $1.5 million that has put into escrow funds for the eventual Democratic nominees in 24 Republican-held districts; Swing Left, another progressive organization, has raised $1.7 million into funds for the eventual opponents of 35 Republican House members who voted for the GOP health care bill.
Those numbers will climb significantly over the next year, and they demonstrate that Ossoff is not the only Democrat pulling in big money from small donors online. Many Republican incumbents will face opponents who are better-funded than ever in 2018.
The good news for them is that many incumbents have money socked away already, and Republican groups have plenty of resources to defend them. The National Republican Congressional Committee raised $52.5 million in the first five months of 2018, a huge jump from the $35.5 million it raised in the same period in 2016. A handful of Republican megadonors have already poured more than $10 million into the Congressional Leadership Fund, the main House GOP super PAC (most of which went into Georgia).
Democrats are still working out how to handle Trump on the trail
Ossoff launched his campaign with the stated objective of “making Trump furious,” but as his campaign became competitive and Ossoff got a real shot at winning the seat during the April primary, something happened: Ossoff stopped mentioning Trump.
It was a conscious choice by Ossoff and his campaign. Trump is not popular, but also not overwhelmingly unpopular, in the district. And with the president already on the mind of every voter in the district (and the nation), Ossoff’s team didn’t want to come across as lecturing or shaming moderate and conservative voters who might have voted for Trump — and whose support Ossoff needed to get across the finish line in a high-turnout, GOP-leaning district. Instead, Ossoff tried to earn their votes by focusing on the federal deficit and business development.
It’s the opposite tack from the one the Democrats took in 2016, when they made virtually every moment of every race about Trump and got little to show for it. The party specifically wants to focus on “pocketbook issues.” But there are Democrats who disagree, saying that their party ought to focus its campaigns on the main event in politics.
“I think they should be wading into the argument that sends a wake-up call that Trump’s off on the wrong foot,” said Jeff Hauser, a Democratic strategist who is currently the executive director of the Revolving Door Project, which watches executive-branch appointments. “I thank there’s a way to sell that message that’s not overly strident. Even in districts that aren’t blue districts, you can lean into the argument that the reason you want Ossoff is to get Trump more focused on doing people’s business than in picking fights.”
Watch out for open House seats in 2018
Despite their defeat, Democrats are touting the fact that dozens of Republicans in the House of Representatives hold bluer districts than Georgia’s 6th. But that discounts a huge factor that helped Democrats make the Georgia district competitive: It was an open seat.
After all, then-Rep. Tom Price carried this district with more than 60 percent of the vote in November, even as Trump surprisingly carried the longtime GOP bastion by less than 2 percentage points.
“Washington is as unpopular as it has ever been before, but the dirty little secret is that people still love their incumbents. If Tom Price were still sitting in this seat, he’d probably be cruising to reelection in 2018,” said Ken Spain, a partner at CGCN group and a former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “But the fact it’s an open seat changes the dynamic significantly. … Open seats are susceptible to shifts in the environment.”
That’s exactly what happened in Georgia, where the results looked much more like Trump’s presidential showing than past local GOP campaigns. It’s part of the reason why Democratic candidates have flooded into the race for one Miami-area Republican House seat and stayed away from the other. Hillary Clinton carried both in 2016, but GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is retiring from one seat, while GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo will be defending a strong 2016 win in his district, even though Trump lost it by a wide margin.
On the other side of the aisle, Democratic Rep. Tim Walz is leaving his rural Minnesota district open to run for governor. Trump just carried the district handily even though it went for former President Barack Obama twice, and Republicans are expected to make a strong challenge for the seat in 2018.
No one knows what the national political landscape will look like in November 2018, or whether Trump will be as unpopular as he is now, but it’s clear that open districts will be most susceptible to following the national trends. Republican and Democratic operatives alike will spend the summer and fall keeping a close eye on which (and how many) House incumbents decide to call it quits and leave their districts open.