The official Republican message on Wednesday, one day after Georgia’s special election, was that it meant nothing. There is no cause to be alarmed by Democrat Jon Ossoff’s indisputably strong performance. Republican nominee Karen Handel is going to defeat him in the June runoff. There’s no reason to worry about the party’s standing going into the 2018 midterm elections.
Unofficially, however, there were plenty of Republican operatives who viewed last week’s Kansas special election and Tuesday’s contest in Georgia as a harbinger of tough times ahead — warning signs that congressional leaders would be crazy to ignore as they craft their legislative strategy for the months ahead.
“I think we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t recognize that the Democratic anger is real,” said Glen Bolger, a longtime Republican pollster who co-founded the firm Public Opinion Strategies. “The biggest lesson is, guess what, we’re heading into a midterm where we control everything and it’s going to be tougher than when we were the out-party.”
Another Republican strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Georgia and Kansas races show that Democrats have “a ton of enthusiasm. They’re going to raise a ton of money.”
A few members of Congress were willing to go on record and admit that recent special election results were a bit unsettling. Republican Rep. Dave Brat, a member of the Freedom Caucus who has bucked GOP leaders on a number of issues, said the race was “a little bit of a wakeup call” for the GOP, which he said needed “to do policy and politics at the same time."
Republicans, the Virginia congressman said, are busy “doing healthcare and tax policy and regulatory reform,” while Democrats, now that they are out of power, are focused “almost entirely on politics.”
Still, GOP leaders expressed only confidence on Wednesday following Ossoff’s performance despite the fact that his 48 percent result nearly met the 50 percent threshold necessary to win the Georgia seat outright — in a conservative-oriented House district that Republicans have held since 1979.
“Karen Handel will be an effective representative for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, like my good friends Tom Price and Newt Gingrich, and I’m looking forward to helping her win this election on June 20th,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement.
Curt Anderson, a prominent Republican strategist, downplayed Democratic claims that the race signaled much about the 2018 election conditions.
“The last contested election in that district was won by Trump by a few points over Hillary,” he said. “Same thing happened here yesterday. Boring. A lot of fuss about nothing.”
He noted that Republicans also had nothing to fear from last week’s special election results in Kansas, where Republican Ron Estes defeated Democrat James Thompson by seven percentage points in a district Trump carried in November by 27 points.
“These specials tend to portend exactly nothing about what is ahead of us,” Anderson said.
GOP strategist Carl Forti agreed, saying “special elections are called special for a reason. They’re unique.”
“Historically, there’s not much correlation between what happens in special elections and what happens in November,” Forti said. “We have no idea what the environment is going to be like in three months, much less 12.”
At the White House, press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the idea that Republicans had anything to fear from the Georgia results.
“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,” he said Wednesday at a press briefing. “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.”
But Ossoff’s results came in at the high end of a private White House estimate that the Democrat would receive between 46 percent and 48 percent of the vote. The special election had been the subject of close White House scrutiny, stretching to the highest levels. The president himself dashed off a handful of tweets about the race and even recorded a robocall pounding Ossoff by name.
Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon also closely monitored the contest. In the run-up to the election, Priebus spoke by phone with Randy Evans, an influential Republican National Committee member from Georgia, to sound him out about the race.
“He’s a political creature. You couldn’t stop him if you wanted to from paying attention,” Evans said.
By the time Election Day arrived, Bannon had been keeping track of early vote counts, closely enough to know that Ossoff had been racking up large margins.
One White House official who declined to go on record argued that it was the president’s late involvement in mobilizing Republican voters that helped keep Ossoff below the magic 50 percent mark. Trump himself seemed to suggest the same in a late Tuesday night tweet in which he said, without prompting, that he was “glad to be of help!”
The public confidence conveyed by the White House wasn’t entirely convincing. Some GOP strategists contended the party is kidding itself if it completely brushes off the results of the recent special elections.
“There’s a lot of fear, especially in the blue states,” said a Republican defense lobbyist who said he’s spoken to a number of GOP lawmakers concerned about a Democratic backlash to Trump.
The Georgia election, the lobbyist said, was “just like Kansas — it’s another warning sign for Republicans that the House could be in play in 2018, and people aren’t happy with the direction the country is going in.”
“I’ve already seen several members opening their campaign offices earlier,” said the lobbyist, who noted that Republicans needed to notch some victories on Capitol Hill. “The Republicans need to figure out what they can do, not what they can’t do.”
The Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the GOP needs to adapt to the fact that midterm elections are usually bad for the party in power.
“There’s going to be a lot of close races, particularly in districts that are demographically similar to Georgia’s Sixth — highly educated and white,” said the strategist. “Are they going to give someone like Rodney Frelinghuysen his closest race in his career? Probably. Can they beat Rodney Frelinghuysen? Probably not.”
Frelinghuysen, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who represents an affluent, suburban New Jersey district, won in 2016 with 58 percent of the vote — the closest race of his 22-year career in Congress.
“Midterms are a referendum on the party in power, and we are in power,” said the strategist, who called the failed House Republican health care bill an example of what not to do. “I think we should not do stupid shit in Congress. I think we should do popular things instead of unpopular things.”
Elana Schor and Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.