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Dems come up short in special elections, but find a silver lining

If Democrats can seriously compete in red districts in red states like these, they can seriously compete almost anywhere.
Image: Jon Ossoff
Democratic candidate for 6th congressional district Jon Ossoff, right, greets supporters as he leaves a campaign office in Marietta, Ga., Tuesday, June 20,...

In 2009, the first year of Barack Obama's presidency, there were five congressional special elections, including one in a red district in upstate New York, and Democratic candidates won all five. Was it evidence of Dems' national strength? Not really: a year later, Republicans won 63 U.S. House seats and took control of the chamber.

In 2017, the first year of Donald Trump's presidency, there have been five congressional special elections, and as of last night, Republicans have now won four of them, including a key victory in a hard-fought race in Georgia.

Republican Karen Handel won the special congressional election in Georgia on Tuesday, fending off a challenge from Democrat Jon Ossoff in the heavily Republican House district. [...]With 99 percent of the vote counted, Handel leads Ossoff 53 percent to 47 percent in a race that many expected to be much closer.

Of course, there's more than one way to look at the results. We could, for example, focus on the fact that Democrats went all out to win Georgia's special election, hoping to use it as a national referendum, and came up short. The results are likely to be demoralizing in some circles.

On the other hand, it's equally true that over the last 25 years, no Democrat has ever come close to seriously competing in this red district -- formally represented by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Tom Price -- and this special election was easily the closest contest Georgia's 6th has ever seen. What's more, the Democrat was a 30-year-old, first-time candidate, who didn't actually live in the district, running against a Republican who'd already been elected to statewide office.

Let's also not forget that there was another special election in South Carolina's 5th yesterday -- a district that's even more Republican than Georgia's 6th -- and in that race Republican Ralph Norman prevailed over Democrat Archie Parnell by just three points, 51% to 48%.

Republicans have reason to celebrate, and winning is always more fun than losing. But taking a step back, there's a silver lining for the party that's come up short: if Democrats can seriously compete in red districts in red states like these, they can seriously compete almost anywhere.

Indeed, when Trump's White House tapped four Republican congressman for prominent posts in the GOP administration, the immediate assumption was that Republicans would have little trouble holding onto these seats. For most observers, it was a foregone conclusion: if Dems intended to make gains, they'd have to wait until 2018 and focus their attention elsewhere.

And yet, Democratic congressional candidates in these special elections have easily outpaced their 2016 performances in each of the four races: Kansas' 4th, Georgia's 6th, South Carolina's 5th, and Montana's at-large seat. In each case, Republicans had to scramble to prevail in districts they expected to win without breaking a sweat. (There was also a recent special election in California's 34th, where a GOP candidate failed to even make the runoff.)

As we discussed last month, congressional elections are zero-sum affairs: candidates vie for a seat, the winner earns the opportunity to serve, and the loser gets nothing. No one gets a "nice job keeping it close" trophy.

But context is everything. Democrats are performing far better than anyone expected in areas that looked quite safe for the GOP. Republicans who see the results as a seal of approval from the national electorate are making a mistake.