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Virgil: Five Takeaways from the Georgia Special Election

President Trump took a risk by intervening in Tuesday’s special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District.  That is, a more cautious president might have chosen to “stay above it all” and just let the election play itself out.  Instead, in the run-up to the April 18 balloting, Trump charged in, firing off a half-dozen tweets to his 28 million followers.

With that in mind, it seems seems fitting to let White House press secretary Sean Spicer–himself a longtime veteran of Republican electioneering—have the first word.  As he said in his Wednesday briefing:

This is a district that was very close on the presidential level last cycle, and the Democrats went all-in on this.  They were clear going into this election.  They said that their goal was to get over 50 percent. They came up short.  They lost. And the reaction has somewhat been, you know, that they almost won.  No, they lost.  They made very clear what their goal was in this race.  They spent $8.3 million and threw everything including the kitchen sink into at it and lost.

Spicer is correct that the Democrats had high hopes for Georgia 6—hopes that were not quite dashed, but also not realized.

Yes, Democrat Jon Ossoff won 48 percent of the vote, which is ten points more than the Democratic candidate won in the same district last November, when the GOP candidate was Tom Price, now Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services.  So yes, Ossoff was tantalizingly close to winning outright, thus becoming a US Congressman.  Yet, as they say about elections, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”

Instead, Ossoff will now face Republican Karen Handel one-on-one in the June 20 runoff.  Handel trailed far behind Ossoff in the first round of voting, with just shy of 20 percent, but she was in a crowded field, including a number of plausible GOP rivals.

So while Ossoff starts from a strong place, close to 50, Handel still has a good shot; the reality is that all the Republicans running on Tuesday got more votes than  all the Democrats, including Ossoff.  So if Handel can unite her fellow Republicans, she will likely win.

Now five more takeaways:

First, the issues that Trump tweeted about are revealing.  The President hit hard the populist-nationalist themes of his 2016 campaign, and yet he made one interesting, and perhaps revealing, omission. Here’s one presidential tweet, from April 17:

The super Liberal Democrat in the Georgia Congressional race tomorrow wants to protect criminals, allow illegal immigration and raise taxes!

And here’s another:

Democrat Jon Ossoff would be a disaster in Congress.  VERY weak on crime and illegal immigration, bad for jobs and wants higher taxes. Say NO.

And after the voting, Trump added:

Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG “R” win with runoff in Georgia.  Glad to be of help!

And also:

Dems failed in Kansas and are now failing in Georgia. Great job Karen Handel! It is now Hollywood vs. Georgia on June 20th.

We might pause over the issues that Trump hit in these tweets: crime, illegal immigration, jobs, taxes, outside big money (Ossoff raised some $10 million, with perhaps 95 percent of it coming from outside his district), and, of course, “FAKE media.”  And oh yes, the “culture war” angle of Hollywood vs. Georgia (Ossoff hasn’t done much in his life, but he has been a documentary filmmaker, one of his clients being Al-Jazeera; for most Americans, that’s not such a great credential).

Obviously, it would be just fine with Trump if the runoff were on those familiar populist-nationalist themes.

Yet at the same time, we might note the absence of the healthcare issue from Trump’s tweet-repertoire.  This absence is especially striking, as health care is the domestic issue with which his young administration has been most associated. In fact, the repeal-Obamacare effort has been spearheaded by the same Secretary Price, formerly the Georgia 6 Congressman.   And yet it would appear that Team Trump didn’t see health care as a good issue for the GOP in the special election.  More on that point further on.

Second, let’s take a closer look at the Democrats.  It’s fair to say that the Dems are nervous.  They thought that Ossoff had a real chance to get over 50, and thus win the seat—but he didn’t.  So now, having let their grasp exceed their grip, Democrats are feeling deflated, expectations-game-wise.

As Politico headlined one of its morning-after pieces, “Democrats begin to wonder: When do we win?  For all the roiling anger and energy at the grassroots, the party still fell short in Georgia and Kansas.  And Democratic prospects in upcoming elections aren’t promising.”  Below that donkey-downer header, the article declared of candidate Ossoff, “The Democrat will be an underdog in that contest, when there won’t be a crowded field of Republicans to splinter the vote.”  Since then, Democratic chatter has grown even more pessimistic.

And as is often the case, a Breitbart News headline captured the mood: “Sad Dems throw Ossoff Under Bus.”  So we’ll have to see if Ossoff, in the next two months, can replicate the energy and money that he had in the last two months.

Third, within the GOP candidates, the “national candidates” did poorly.  That is, the candidates who seemed connected to larger causes, beyond Georgia 6, all fell short.  One such was Bob Gray, who had the support of the highly ideological Club For Growth; he finished third, with a bit more than 10 percent of the vote.  Another “national” candidate was Bruce Levell, who had worked on the Trump campaign and had touted his connections to the White House; he earned just 0.2 percent of the vote.  And another “national” was Tea Party veteran Amy Kremer, who last year worked on a Trump-connected Super PAC; she also earned 0.2 percent.

By contrast, the Republican winner, Handel, is known for little other than her long career within the Georgia GOP.  We can say it’s not always true that “all politics is local,” but oftentimes it’s true.

Fourth, concerns about the economy are beginning to creep into the political conversation.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average enjoyed a strong rally after Trump’s win, gaining 2600 points from Election Day to the beginning of March.  But since then, the market has stalled; today, the Dow is down about 500 points from its peak.

Meanwhile, on April 14, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta released its economic growth estimate for the first quarter of 2017; it was a meager 0.5 percent.  And just on April 19, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest money manager, said of the economy, “There are some warning signs that are getting darker.”  To be sure, Fink’s is just one voice—even though he does oversee assets of $5.1 trillion—but it’s undeniable that economic mavens are starting to worry.  That is, they are growing concerned that the bullish Trump policies they had been counting on, such as tax cuts and infrastructure spending, might not materialize, at least not soon enough.  Virgil regards this as a clear signal: If the Trump administration and the GOP want to accelerate growth, they will have to put pro-growth policies in place.  So shake a leg!

Fifth, in the meantime, the healthcare fight isn’t helping.  As we all know, the effort to repeal-and-sort-of-replace-Obamacare has consumed most of the oxygen in the domestic arena for the last couple of months—and it hasn’t done the GOP any good.

When last heard from on March 24, the ill-fated American Health Care Act (AHCA), aka Ryan Care, suffered from an approve/disapprove rating of 17:56.  That’s a pretty deep hole; indeed, from a GOP point of view, it was starting to look like the Civil War’s Battle of the Crater, brought back to memory in the 2003 Jude Law movie, Cold Mountain.

Given its recent political history, healthcare doesn’t seem to be—how to put this delicately?—the best weapon in the Trump administration arsenal.  Indeed, a compendium of polls on the Trump administration’s healthcare policy shows a severe verdict: 34.9 percent of Americans approve, and 52.6 percent of Americans disapprove.  Moreover, a closer look at the data shows that the damage done to the Trump administration’s standing on healthcare has largely occurred since the release of the AHCA bill on March 6.

So with that bleak track record, as Virgil has argued in the past, this doesn’t seem to be an auspicious moment to bring up healthcare again.  And yet, reportedly, it’s b-a-a-a-ck.  Or maybe, on second thought, it’s not—at least not right away.

Either way, not many in Washington think that much will come from a renewed healthcare push; with each iteration, the hoped-for legislation looks more and more like . . . Obamacare.   And yet in the short run, even the rumor of a return to the healthcare crater could have political consequences.

And the first place that such political consequences could register is in Georgia 6.  Thus it will be instructive to see how the Republican candidate, Handel, will handle the issue.  And a look at the healthcare section of her website tells us that she is treating it carefully: She’s against Obamacare, but she defines the GOP replacement plan as “a work in progress.”

Smart woman.

If she can unite the GOP, out-debate Ossoff, and, most of all, focus on her plans for growing the economy while keeping the focus away from forlorn healthcare plans, Handel could well be the newest Member of Congress from the Peach State.

And if she does win, the Trump administration will keep on trucking.

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