Capitol Attitude

Dem losses pile up with Handel win, complicating House takeover plans

Chad Pergram

It goes like this.

There’s a tight House race somewhere. A district on the bubble. A seat which hasn’t flipped from one party to the other in years. The question centers on if it will switch control this time.

The answer is virtually the same.

There are a lot of districts I can get to 47, 48, 49 percent if we push it. But 50.1 percent? No.

There’s been a variation of this same answer to multiple inquiries over the years from top political aides as well as multiple chairmen of both the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Sure, one side or the other can pour a lot of money and elbow grease into certain districts and make them close. Even nail-biters. But in the end, some districts are Democratic districts. And some districts are Republican districts. 

HANDEL WINS SPECIAL ELECTION

Georgia’s 6th Congressional District could qualify for this standard. It’s just a Republican district. GOPers held the seat for decades. Former Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., vacated the seat in February to become Health and Human Services secretary. Rep.-elect Karen Handel, R-Ga., emerged Tuesday night as the victor over Democrat Jon Ossoff in the most closely watched contest since President Trump took office. It was the most-expensive House race in U.S. history.

There’s a saying in sports: You’ve gotta win when you can win. Windows for sports teams to secure a championship open and close. The window is open now for the Washington Nationals in baseball. The Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals had been on the cusp for years in football. Those windows may have slammed shut for those squads.

Democrats had a chance to win the Georgia seat outright in April. Georgia law requires candidates snare 50.1 percent or face a runoff between the two top vote-getters. Ossoff clocked in at 48 percent in April. Handel finished second with a meager 20 percent in a crowded field. A host of candidates shared the remainder. Two more points and Ossoff would have vanquished Handel then. But Ossof couldn’t close the deal. Handel lived to fight another day. Democrats could have swiped a seat. Now the window is closed. Ossoff is going home. Handel is headed to Washington.

Ossoff’s loss is not catastrophic for House Democrats. But it doesn’t help. Democrats are now wearing the collar when it comes to competitive House elections. Democrat James Thompson over-performed in his bid to defeat Rep. Ron Estes, R-Kan., for the right to succeed former Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., who is now CIA director.  But Estes is now a House member. Democrat Rob Quist squeezed Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., for the seat vacated by former Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., who is Trump’s Interior secretary. But Gianforte prevailed. The House swears in Gianforte Wednesday.

Democrats managed to put three Republican-leaning seats in play. But Democrats are now 0-3 in big special elections. You either win or lose in politics. There are no participation trophies.

Still, Democrats need a victory or two if they’re going to have any chance of re-taking the House next year. When asked last month if it was essential that Democrats win at least one of these special elections in order to reclaim the House, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., replied, “I don’t know that we do.”

Hoyer may be right. Republicans control 23 other districts that Hillary Clinton carried last fall. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., is retiring from a seat which most political observers believe will shift to Democrats next year. Clinton thumped the president in that district. But results in a special election don’t always predict the future. In a 2010 special election, analysts asserted Republicans had to win the Pennsylvania seat held by the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., to have a shot of tipping the House. Democrats not only maintained the seat in the special election, but hung on in the fall. Voters sent Rep. Mark Critz, D-Pa., to Washington. Critz had served as Murtha’s district director. But sure enough, Republicans won the House in the 2010 midterms.

But it helps to “steal” a few seats. Democrats certainly “stole” seats in 2006 and 2008 when they won the House. Democrats recruited moderate to conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats in Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina. Democrats like former Reps. Zack Space, D-Ohio; Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind.; and Heath Shuler, D-N.C., propelled Democrats to the majority. Democrats haven’t been competitive in those rural districts for several cycles now. Yes, a “steal” in Kansas, Montana or Georgia would be nice for Democrats. But Democrats need wins elsewhere to put the House up for grabs.

More than one Capitol Hill Democratic source suggested to Fox News that the biggest problem in the Georgia contest was Ossoff himself. He may have just been too liberal for the district. These sources indicated that a moderate “Blue Dog” Democrat may have matched up better against Handel.

Democrats also failed to sufficiently tether Handel to President Trump. Democrats believe that latching Republican House members and candidates to the president is a winner. But that tactic didn’t work in Georgia.

Meantime, Republicans relished connecting a progressive candidate like Ossoff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“Pelosi threw the kitchen sink at her, yet Karen still came out on top,” boasted NRCC Chairman Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio.

You can bet that Republicans will re-up their old playbook next year and link Democratic candidates to the prospects of “Speaker Pelosi.”

Special elections are just snapshots of given districts at certain points in time. As most eyes focused on Georgia, South Carolina conducted a special election to fill the seat of former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. Mulvaney is now Trump’s budget director. Rep.-elect Ralph Norman, R-S.C., eked out a 2,700-vote victory over Democrat Archie Parnell. No one expected the Norman/Parnell race to be this close.

It should be noted that Democrats used to hold remnants of this district before Mulvaney toppled then-Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., in 2010. It had been a “Democratic” seat for years. But that was before Republicans “stole” the seat and elected Mulvaney.

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.