"A victory for the ages," Democrat Jon Ossoff called it last night.
But it wasn't. Not quite and not yet. You could call his showing a surprise, a success, an achievement, a signal of deep public discontent ... sure, it was all that. It was also a confirmation of Democratic enthusiasm and passion.
But victory? No.
Then again, Ossoff wasn't the only one to get a little carried away and claim a win when there wasn't one.
When a completely unknown 30-year-old former congressional staffer manages to pull 48.1 percent of the vote in a strongly Republican district in the red state of Georgia, you could call it many things, but a GOP win is not among them. Worried Republicans would call Tuesday's results a reprieve; in their honest moments they will concede that it was also a warning shot, a dodged bullet, to be taken very seriously.
By less than two percentage points, they avoided an outright loss in Tom Price's district that would have deeply shaken Republican confidence both in their president and in their party's direction. An already fractured party would have splintered still further, with individual congressmen distancing themselves from Trump. Trump himself tweeted seven different times about the race in the last two days, as sure a sign of concern as you're likely to see.¹
So now it's onto June 20, and a contest between Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel, the one person who truly could claim a win of sorts last night. The TV ads will continue and probably intensify, both in number and in personal attacks. And while conventional wisdom argues that Ossoff's best chance was in hitting that magic 50 percent Tuesday night, I'm not sure that's true. I think his "victory for the ages" is still within his grasp.
It's going to be a close race, we know that now. Ossoff's voter base is solid and likely to return to the polls nine weeks from now, and Republicans in the 6th District are already uniting behind Handel. But a June runoff is a different beast. College kids go home. Families go off on vacations. The beaches and mountains beckon, attention starts to wander, and volunteer passion is a hard thing to sustain for so long. Turnout will determine everything, and turnout will be strongly affected by what happens up in Washington.
If the narrative between now and June is still White House incompetence and infighting, if congressional Republicans continue to prove themselves incapable of governance, then Republican enthusiasm back here in Georgia will continue to suffer and the door will creak open for Ossoff. What happens to health care, for example? Do Republicans revive their deeply unpopular replacement plan, forcing Handel to either embrace or reject it? What happens in the minefield of foreign policy?
By late this month, Republican leaders in the House and Senate will also have to find some way to raise the debt ceiling and continue to fund government operations, which is a basic duty of the governing party. One of the critical questions in that debate will be continued federal funding of the family-planning and women's health operations of Planned Parenthood, and a government shutdown over that issue is quite plausible.
I doubt that would play well in the highly educated 6th District, where health-care delivery is a major industry. It also summons all kinds of bad memories for Handel, with complications that are impossible to predict. It could yet be a political disaster narrowly averted, or it could be a victory for the ages.
Democracy ... this is what it feels like, and we don't get enough of it.
¹His demand for credit aside, Trump remains more burden than benefit in the 6th. The GOP candidates who tried to ride his bandwagon, notably Bob Gray and Bruce LaVell, did quite poorly.