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Lessons learned from the special election

Thirty days may be an eternity in politics, but it looks like the (mercifully) just-ended special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District could hold some clues that extend into 2018. Let’s see if we can find some lasting lessons from Republican Karen Handel’s victory over Democrat Jon Ossoff.

Democrats finally put money into Georgia but left with nothing to show for it.

Every four years we hear the same thing: National Democrats are going to spend some money to put Georgia into play. It never happens. But after Hillary Clinton performed surprisingly well against Donald Trump in some parts of metro Atlanta last fall, including a shockingly narrow, 1.5-point loss in the 6th, liberals from coast to coast put some $30 million toward Ossoff’s cause.

The result: a 3.8-point loss to Handel. Statewide elections loom next year, and Stacey Abrams, the presumptive front-runner in the Democratic primary for governor, has a national profile. But with Democrats hoping to retake the U.S. House or Senate, will they be reluctant to send checks to the site of their recent, bitter disappointment?

Democrats’ slightly improved showing in 2016 might represent a ceiling, not a trend.

Presidential elections draw more voters than special elections — although turnout in the 6th on Tuesday hit a silly 58 percent — but the following comparison is still staggering:

In November, a virtually invisible Democrat named Rodney Stooksbury spent zero dollars and won 124,917 votes against Tom Price. This past week, the widely celebrated Ossoff spent $30 million (including PACs) and won 124,893 votes against Handel.

Yes, turnout was higher last November. But it seems the drop-off, and thus the room to grow, was all on the GOP’s side. Ossoff’s campaign might have found every Democrat there is in the district; as his pollster, John Anzalone, told Politico: “At the end of the day with 260,000 people voting, we just ran out of Democrats and independents.” If that’s also true more widely in Georgia, Democrats will have a very hard time breaking through next year. Unless …

Bad news from Washington hurts the Georgia GOP.

All the negativity about President Trump and the GOP-led Congress made a lot of smart people think Ossoff could win a previously deep-red seat. But the run-off took place just five months after Trump’s inauguration, and it may be that was simply too soon for people to throw in the towel on him. Sixteen and a half months from now, that may no longer be true. That’s why …

Republicans in Congress can help themselves, in Georgia and beyond, by pulling it together and passing some meaningful legislation.

A lot of GOP congressmen might have run for the hills had their party lost a seemingly safe seat in Georgia, but Handel’s win takes that excuse away from them.

The Senate is working toward a vote on its version of health reform as soon as this week. Tax reform still awaits. Pass those, add the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch (and, rumor has it, possibly a second new justice with an opening that could come soon), and Republicans will have some real accomplishments to campaign on next year.

That would help Georgia Republicans. But if Washington bogs down, the reverse will be true, too.

Kyle Wingfield writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach him and read more at www.bit.ly/KyleWingfield.