Most of the coverage surrounding Georgia’s closely watched special election has focused on who will win the highly competitive contest. But the race has also exposed a broader, more confounding question that’s dogging Republicans these days: What does it mean to be a conservative Republican in the age of Trump?
The newly minted GOP nominee, Karen Handel, kept more distance from President Trump than her Republican rivals did, but she boasted a more conservative record than any of the Republicans in the race. She cut off grants to Planned Parenthood in her role as a Susan G. Komen for the Cure official—a decision that led to her ouster from the organization—making her a champion of social conservatives. She touts her implementation of a voter ID law while she was Georgia’s secretary of state. There aren’t many issues where she diverges from conservative orthodoxy, even as the suburban Atlanta district has been drifting in a Democratic direction.
Trump’s unorthodox views have scrambled the definition of conservatism, and utterly confused Republicans, Democrats, and pundits alike. In assessing Handel’s prospects in the upcoming runoff, one CNN commentator dubbed her a “country-club Republican” while other talking heads placed her firmly in the establishment camp. Yes, she has plenty of elective experience as a former county executive, secretary of state, and failed Senate and gubernatorial candidate. The antitax Club for Growth slammed her for spending lavishly when she was a statewide official. But the main reason she’s being seen as a pragmatist is because she’s had actual governing experience. These days, being an outspoken outsider establishes a conservative’s credibility as much as being a successful insider.
Republicans don’t have a much better feel for the future of their party either, particularly in this politically evolving district that views the president skeptically. This is why the party is focused on making the race about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Trump’s Twitter feed has targeted the special election a lot, and he believes that his involvement in the race is helping Republicans. Handel, the day after securing a spot in the runoff, told CNN she’d welcome the president’s support in the district—a shift from her earlier display of independence.
But the two Republican candidates with direct ties to Trump performed dismally. One mid-level Trump campaign staffer (Bruce LeVell) won a measly 455 votes. Another tea-party activist who championed Trump (Amy Kremer) finished with 0.2 percent in the primary. A leading contender who positioned himself as an outsider (Dan Moody) lagged behind expectations, finishing in fourth place. The notion that Trump’s brand of Republicanism won the day was badly undermined by the election results.
Meanwhile, Democrats are still trying to figure out their most effective lines of attack against Handel. Do they hit her for being unabashedly antiabortion, even as she shares the same views on the issue as the other Republicans who have held this seat for decades? Or do they connect her with Trump, even though she’s never been close with the president? So far, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is smartly criticizing her on non-ideological grounds, portraying her in a new ad as “another career politician taking us for a ride.” This attack echoes the conservative Club for Growth criticism that Handel was “living the high life” by spending irresponsibly during her time in office. Democrats may be publicly portraying Handel as an extremist to fire up their base, but their targeted messaging indicates they recognize the futility of defining her in ideological terms in a district where political perceptions are rapidly shifting.
This Republican identity crisis is creating a double whammy for the party: Its lack of legislative accomplishments despite unified control of government is demoralizing to traditional Republican voters, who aren’t nearly as fired up to vote as they were during Barack Obama’s presidency. And Trump’s partial abandonment of the populist agenda that fueled his presidential victory is demoralizing to his own base. Republicans are feeling freer to distance themselves from Trump lately, and the president doesn’t seem to know what he stands for anymore. It’s why the Georgia runoff is likely to remain close, even though Republicans nominated the candidate who matches the mores of the district.
In the wake of Democrat Jon Ossoff’s solid, near-majority showing in the Georgia special election, Democrats are renewing their focus on recruiting candidates in affluent districts that traditionally support Republicans. But as the Cook Political Report ratings show, Democrats would need a near-sweep in these politically evolving districts to have a good shot at retaking the House.
Here’s the House math: Democrats need to net 24 House seats to win back control of the lower chamber. And several of their own seats are vulnerable to Republican takeover, raising the magic number a bit. Sweeping these suburban seats isn’t quite as easy as some think. Of the 25 most-affluent House seats held by a Republican (based on median household income), Trump won 16 of them in last year’s election—including six by double-digits. Of the 39 Republican-held seats deemed potentially competitive by The Cook Political Report, 29 are predominantly in urban or suburban territory.
All this means that Democrats have a path to winning back control of the House, but their margin for error is fairly slim—even with the political winds at their back. It would mean that they would have to defeat some deeply entrenched members (think 11-term Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas or 12-term Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey). That’s not impossible, but it underscores the fact that it will take a perfect storm to do so—and not just a promising political environment.
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