Congratulations to the two newest members of the House, both Republicans: Karen Handel from Georgia and Ralph Norman from South Carolina.
The Georgia race - which got the bulk of the attention and record-breaking money - is a clear victory for the Republicans. Individual seats are important! My guess is that most experts would have considered Handel a moderate favorite to defend the seat successfully in 2018. Yes, Democrats will point out that they didn’t need this one; there are quite a few targets that lean less strongly to Republicans.
That’s true, but this one was an open seat (giving them a better chance than those in which a Republican incumbent runs). And anyway, parties don’t win the House by winning the 24 (what the Democrats need) easiest seats; they fail to win some with a better partisan balance and pick off a few that look difficult going in.
The Georgia win will help Republicans field better candidates in 2018. It’s not hard to imagine a Republican incumbent (in any office) being marginally more likely to run for re-election today than would have been the case had Democrat Jon Ossoff won. That’s true even though objectively Democrats continue to do quite well in special elections this year, running far ahead of the same offices in 2016.
Several questions remain.
Do Democrats have a problem with actually winning, as opposed to just doing better than in 2016? I think it’s fairly unlikely. They’ve captured a couple of state legislative specials, as well as sort of picking up San Antonio mayor (the incumbent in that nonpartisan race was not a Republican but did to some extent run as one, and her victorious challenger more or less ran as a Democrat).
That said, the Georgia House race was the first real potential evidence of a possible problem, since while Ossoff did much better than the Democratic House candidate in 2016, he did a bit worse than Hillary Clinton in that district, making it hard to assess what “should” happen there. All this will be at least partially resolved in November, when New Jersey and Virginia hold gubernatorial and state legislative contests.
To me, all the 2017 elections have done so far is support what we can already know from Donald Trump’s approval ratings and the general pattern of mid-term and off-year elections, which is that 2018 should be a pretty good year for the Democrats.
Some are arguing that the Georgia race, in which Republicans ran heavily against Nancy Pelosi, proves that she is toxic and should retire. I remain very skeptical.
After all, the new Democratic leader would be a mainstream liberal, and would come from a liberal district - likely in one of the (many) states which, when attacked, appear to excite Republican voters. The problem is there’s simply no way to test whether a fresh face would take some time to demonize. I doubt it, but it’s hard to prove one way or another.
There’s also a lot of talk about how the effects of the Republican victory will help them pass their health-care bill and other parts of their agenda. Perhaps that’s true on the margins. And it may not be. After all, it still looks like a lousy year for Republicans; it’s not entirely clear why looking marginally less lousy should change the calculations behind legislative votes. Or it could have complex effects. What if Freedom Caucus Republicans are inspired by the win to hold out for a bill even less acceptable to those in marginal districts?
At any rate, it’s likely to be, if anything, a very short-term effect. Potential candidates may remember the Georgia race for a while, but legislators (and the rest of us) will forget it quickly.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.