For nine months in 1916, the French and German armies battled with insane ferocity over a small patch of land in Northern France, committing over two million soldiers, spending the lives of over 300,000 men (and more than that wounded) and at the epicenter of the battle, pouring millions of shells (literally over a ton of explosives) on an area covering about twelve square miles. The Battle of Verdun was about control of a modest piece of strategically useful territory, but it was really about a lot more: two national combatants testing their strength, resources, and resolve, stakes far more important than an individual town or ridge. Virtually every inch of land that was fought over was destroyed. The victors, the French, held nothing more than what they started the battle with, and their army was broken so badly it has not yet recovered a century later. The losers, the Germans, lost the war.
The residents of Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District can be forgiven for feeling like the villagers of Verdun after a special election that pulverized the district with ad spending and activists. Patrick Ruffini estimated on Twitter this morning that the two parties combined to spend more money in this House race ($50 million) than Ronald Reagan spent on his 1984 presidential reelection (even adjusting Reagan’s $28 million campaign for inflation). At this writing, given the projected outcome, the net result looks very much like Verdun: a costly and depressing victory for the Republicans, bled white defending their own turf, and a debacle for Democrats, who came home empty-handed and must be able to win districts like GA-06 if they are to take control of the House in 2018 and carry out their chief policy goal of impeaching President Trump.
GA-06 was always going to be a heavy lift for both sides. For Democrats, the obstacles were obvious: it’s a deeply conservative district, Newt Gingrich’s old district, that Mitt Romney won 61-38 in 2012, where then-Congressman Tom Price was regularly reelected with ease. Their candidate, Jon Ossoff, is young and looks younger, had no real base of support in Georgia (the vast majority of his donors were out of state), and doesn’t even live in the district. His opponent, Karen Handel, was much better-known: she was first elected to office in the district 14 years ago, previously won statewide office as Secretary of State, ran respectable races for Governor in 2010 and Senate in 2014, and won national notoriety in 2012 over her ultimately unsuccessful effort to separate a national cancer charity from Planned Parenthood.
For Republicans, the race was difficult because this is probably the least Trump-friendly Republican district in the country, an upscale, educated suburban district full of transplants from around the country who work for big multinational corporations headquartered in Atlanta. Trump won it by just a point, running double digits behind Romney, and his approval ratings are well lower now than even his dismal favorability numbers on Election Day. Trump lost just four counties in the state in the 2016 presidential primary, but three of those four (Fulton, Cobb, and DeKalb) make up GA-06, all of which went for Marco Rubio. Trump’s worst counties in Georgia in the primary:
DeKalb: Rubio 41, Trump 25
Fulton: Rubio 42, Trump 27
Clarke: Rubio 35, Trump 27
Cobb: Rubio 35, Trump 31
In November as well, Trump ran poorly in these counties compared to incumbent Senator Johnny Isakson – his worst counties in the state relative to Isakson:
Fulton: Isakson -23, Trump -41
Macon: Isakson -12, Trump -27
Stewart: Isakson -5, Trump -20
Dooly: Isakson +16, Trump +2
Clarke: Isakson -23, Trump -37
DeKalb: Isakson -49, Trump -63
Cobb: Isakson +11, Trump -2
That matters because it has gotten a lot harder for down-ticket Republicans to get separation from Trump. In 2016, the election results showed that voters were able and willing to see the differences between Trump’s highly unconventional outsider campaign and the Congressional GOP: most Senate and House Republicans not only ran ahead of Trump, but they won with the support of different voters. A lot of those voters didn’t really believe Trump was going to be the president. Five months into Trump’s term, as he and the Hill GOP are forced into an uncomfortable arranged marriage, it is harder for Republicans to stand clear of the blast radius of Trump’s daily controversies.
The reason why both sides poured so many resources into this race was the simple calculation by both sides that upscale suburban Romney-not-Trump voters are precisely the kind of swing votes that the Democrats need in 2018 to reclaim the House. And yet, Karen Handel persisted, and prevailed. If the Democrats are going to crack that code in 2018, they haven’t yet. Ossoff’s message was a mixed bag of occasional Trump-bashing, conservative-sounding promises to tackle wasteful DC spending, and a very belated rush to hit Republicans on health care after soft-pedaling the issue until the campaign’s final days, when candidates traditionally give up on persuasion and focus on firing up their base.
They still may figure it out: Democrats in 2009-10 won the first seven straight special elections for the House before the GOP got its stuff together in time for a midterm 2010 landslide. The seventh of those, the Mark Critz-Tim Burns race to replace John Murtha in Pennsylvania’s 12th District, seemed at the time like a bellwether, and Critz was re-elected in November. It availed them not, and Critz was eventually defeated in 2014.
Republicans can breathe easier tonight; Karen Handel will be a good Congresswoman, and the Democrats haven’t proven yet that they can win in 2018. Handel’s win will stem some of the panic in Republican ranks about the next cycle, and offer a caution to potential Democratic recruits. But the fight for the House isn’t over yet. In a democracy, it never is.