Democratic activists spent the last month pouring their time, energy, and passion behind a 30-year-old filmmaker, Jon Ossoff, who represented the hopes and dreams of the anti-Trump Left. They turned the low-key former Hill staffer into a political celebrity, helped him raise record sums of money for a House race, and even baited President Trump into unleashing a tweetstorm on the off-year congressional contest.
The return on their investment: a candidate who turned in a solid, unspectacular performance that places him in a runoff against former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel on June 20. Ossoff finished several points shy of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Handel nearly doubled the support of her closest Republican rival, a respectable showing for the GOP political veteran.
In the end, voters in this affluent suburban Atlanta district proved the enduring power of partisanship. The overall Republican share of the vote was in line with what Trump won last November. Ossoff barely improved on Hillary Clinton’s performance in the district, despite outspending the opposition. Republicans turned out in healthy numbers to vote on Election Day, neutralizing the higher-than-usual Democratic turnout in early voting.
Presidential politics loomed large in this election, with Ossoff running an explicitly anti-Trump campaign and the president personally engaging in the race with a slew of messages designed to excite the Republican faithful. Trump wasn’t shy about making the race about himself, even though his approval numbers are underwhelming in the traditionally conservative district. The president recorded a robocall and sent out four tweets from his personal account this week, attacking Ossoff as “super-liberal” and urging Republicans in the district to vote.
All sides can find some solace in Tuesday night’s results. Ossoff’s showing gives him a fighting chance in the upcoming runoff. Just getting within striking distance of a majority is a sign of a fired-up Democratic base. If the party can sustain that energy into 2018, it will be a powerful weapon in the midterm elections across the country.
Republicans were able to use their traditional playbook, painting Ossoff as a down-the-line liberal to stunt his momentum. If that strategy works in the midterms, they’ll be well-positioned to hold their House majority. Democrats need to win these types of diverse, affluent Republican districts to regain control of the lower chamber.
Despite his bumpy first 90 days, Trump can claim credit for boosting GOP turnout to healthy midterm levels. The president isn’t particularly popular in this district—Republican polling pegged his favorability just slightly above water—but he helped rally the rank and file. He can now boast that he stopped Ossoff from getting a quick ticket to Congress. All told, it doesn’t look as if many typical Republican voters—even those who don’t care for Trump—were inclined to vote for a Democrat to send a message.
If there’s anything that should concern Democrats, it’s that they know what they’re against but not what they’re for. They’ve mastered the art of mobilization in the age of Trump, but are still struggling to persuade winnable voters. Ossoff’s campaign ads struck all the right notes, portraying him as a fiscal conservative and a pragmatist who’s tough on national security. But on the stump, Ossoff never articulated much beyond bland Democratic talking points.
With their pumped-up base, Democrats should have a productive midterm election. But to capture a House majority, they’ll need to pick off Republican-friendly seats with candidates who can reassure GOP-leaning voters with a moderate message. Balancing the energy of the progressive activists with that sort of pragmatism won’t be an easy task. It can get Democrats close to a majority, but like Ossoff, they could end up falling short by only being part of the Trump opposition.