Rattled by Donald Trump’s tumultuous first five months in office, the Republican Party breathed a collective sigh of relief Tuesday after a much-needed special election victory in Georgia. The White House also exhaled: After Republican Karen Handel was declared the victor in a race billed as a referendum on the new president, Trump fired off a series of celebratory tweets.
“Well, the Special Elections are over and those that want to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN are 5 and O! All the Fake News, all the money spent = 0,” wrote Trump.
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In the run-up to the Georgia race, Republicans worried that a loss could be the harbinger of a 2018 train-wreck. There were fears that a Handel loss could ripple across the political landscape, spurring GOP retirements, dampening candidate recruitment, and turbo-charging Democrats looking to bounce back following the soul-crushing 2016 election.
The contest, the most expensive House race ever, was viewed by many as the first major strength test of the Democratic resistance to Trump. In the final days before the election, several White House aides said they didn’t know if Handel would be able to fend off Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old filmmaker and former congressional aide who became a cause celebre among liberals nationwide.
But she did, and the president’s supporters viewed the outcome as proof that Trump continues to connect with voters.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an informal Trump adviser and a past occupant of the Georgia seat, contended that the handful of special elections this year revealed that voters were tuning out the Russia scandal that has consumed Washington. He argued that the political establishment, much as it did during the 2016 campaign, continued to underestimate the connection many Americans felt with the president.
“He may be resonating with people in a way that some don’t get,” Gingrich said. “Maybe there’s a whole new conversation taking place in a way that none of us understand.”
It would be a mistake to say Republicans are in the clear. With Trump confronting an expanding federal probe into his 2016 campaign’s ties to Russia, party strategists concede they are still facing serious headwinds in their efforts to retain the House majority in 2018.
And Tuesday’s results weren’t entirely rosy. Handel’s win disguised the fact that the party only narrowly held onto a Republican-oriented Georgia seat, and barely won another race Tuesday for a conservative South Carolina seat that few thought would be competitive. Both outcomes could easily be interpreted as warning signs for the GOP.
Still, given the national spotlight on Georgia, Republicans breathed easier after the race was called for Handel.
“The Democrats threw the kitchen sink at this deal and they’ve come up empty again. They haven’t won an election all year, and they probably won’t until November in New Jersey,” said Scott Reed, the chief political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent more than $1 million on ads boosting Handel.
On Tuesday evening, Trump, who traveled to Georgia to appear with the Republican candidate, weighed in with four tweets highlighting Handel’s performance and one congratulating Ralph Norman in South Carolina. A text message sent to Trump supporters noted that Democrats “lose again (0-4). Total disarray. The MAGA Mandate is stronger than ever.”
Handel’s win could have immediate implications for her party, possibly helping to dissuade veteran lawmakers – some of whom have been spooked by Trump’s underwater approval ratings – from foregoing reelection bids. Hoping to nudge along Republican retirements, Democrats have been recruiting challengers to longtime GOP House members like California Reps. Ed Royce and Dana Rohrabacher and New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, who haven’t faced serious challenges in recent years but are likely to in 2018. The approach is similar to the one Republicans used with success in 2010, the year the GOP recaptured the House majority.
The Georgia outcome could also give a boost to Republican recruiting, which stalled as the political environment worsened for the party. Several blue-chip GOP recruits, including Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy and Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks, had announced they would not be running for Senate — choosing to run for reelection to safe House seats rather than pursue Senate seats in an uncertain environment. Now, as Republicans try to convince other House members to run for Senate, including Fred Upton in Michigan and Luke Messer in Indiana, the Georgia outcome could offer reassurance.
For Republicans confronting the hurdle of running in areas where Trump is unpopular, Handel’s campaign seemed to offer a template for how to run. In a suburban Atlanta district filled with upper income and highly educated voters, Handel managed to win over Republican voters who had cooled on Trump. In days leading up to the election, one GOP poll found that Trump’s approval rating in the district had plummeted to 45 percent.
Handel maneuvered carefully, declaring her support for the president without fully embracing him. She had Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to the district, but chose to hold private fundraisers with them rather than public rallies. On the trail, Handel said that she wouldn’t be an extension of the White House.
Rather than talking about Trump, Handel focused her fire on Ossoff, casting him as a liberal and tying him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a reviled figure in conservative districts like the one he was running in.
But the biggest source of relief for Republicans was the revelation that the party’s base hasn’t abandoned the president.
While Trump has failed to follow through on many of his big-ticket campaign promises, polling continues to show that most bedrock Republicans approve of the job he is doing. That dynamic played out in Georgia where, confronting a mammoth Democratic turnout operation and an energized liberal base, GOP voters turned out in droves.
What’s still unclear is whether the Georgia win will encourage GOP lawmakers to get behind Trump’s troubled legislative agenda. The president has vowed to pass health care and tax reform and an infrastructure package – yet all three face high hurdles on Capitol Hill.
As they digested Tuesday’s results, Republicans cautioned that electoral peril still lies ahead — they pointed out that special elections like the one in Georgia are often poor indicators of the political environment.
In the leadup to the 2010 election, for example, Republicans fell short in a special election for an upstate New York congressional seat the party had held since Reconstruction. At the time, operatives and analysts duly issued doomsday predictions. When the midterms arrived, Republicans captured 63 seats and the House majority.
Republicans continue to see plenty of reason for concern. They note that historical trends aren’t favorable, either. During a closed-door meeting with lawmakers last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan reminded the GOP conference that midterms are traditionally unkind for the party in power during a president’s first term.
“I don’t care who the Republican president is, we know the history of midterm elections,” said Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman and longtime party strategist. “Regardless of the president, we’re going to see a substantially more energized Democratic base next year. The question is, do we lose the majority or come close to losing the majority?”