News analysis

Georgia win buoys Republicans and Trump

Democrats' fourth loss in a row prompts call for party plan review

The Democratic Party's dreams of an upset victory to add a congressional seat in a special election in an affluent suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, have crashed as their outsider candidate Jon Ossoff lost narrowly to local veteran Karen Handel. The result was a major boost for the Republicans instead.

"Democrats from coast to coast threw everything they had at this race, and Karen would not be defeated," said House Speaker Paul Ryan after Tuesday's election.

Ms Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to President Donald Trump, sarcastically tweeted: "Thanks to everyone who breathlessly and snarkily proclaimed (the Georgia election) as a referendum on (the President). You were right. #winning."

That Mr Ossoff came closer to victory than any Democrat for 30 years in a traditionally Republican seat was encouraging for the party, but cold comfort especially after it pumped millions of dollars into his campaign.

In April, Mr Ossoff finished far ahead of the entire field with 48.1 per cent of the vote for the seat vacated by Republican Tom Price after President Trump appointed him to his Cabinet.

The nearest Republican was Georgia's former secretary of state Handel with just 19.8 per cent - but in a field split by many of the party's candidates.

That Mr Ossoff did not get a clear majority triggered Tuesday's run-off in which the Republican vote coalesced around Mrs Handel.

The result also showed that, as in last year's presidential election, massive campaign spending does not work for the Democratic Party.

"What will more than US$30 million (S$42 million) get you? For Democrats, expenditures in that range failed to secure victory," Georgia University professor of political science Charles Bullock told The Straits Times in an e-mail. "The expenditure of tens of millions between the April primary and the June 20 second round had no impact on the outcome."

As the Democrats' fourth loss in a row since the presidential election - though all in Republican strongholds - the Georgia result also underscored the reality that Mr Trump has maintained the support of his base.

Ms Karen Handel with her husband Steve after her election victory on Tuesday. The Republican won a key contest in Georgia.
Ms Karen Handel with her husband Steve after her election victory on Tuesday. The Republican won a key contest in Georgia. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Trump's approval rating stands at 39 per cent, which though at a persistent record low, remained unchanged from February and April, according to a Pew Research Centre survey released on Tuesday.

"Support for Trump is highest among whites, men and older adults," Pew said. "Half of whites approve of the job Trump is doing as President, and 44 disapprove - the only major demographic group in which more approve than disapprove."

Massachusetts Democrat Congressman Seth Moulton tweeted that the result "better be a wake-up call for Democrats - business as usual isn't working. Time to stop rehashing 2016 and talk about the future".

"We need a genuinely new message, a serious jobs plan that reaches all Americans, and a bigger tent not a smaller one," he added.

Professor of political science at Kennesaw University in Georgia Kerwin Swint, in a phone interview, said: "The only reason Ossoff was competitive is the Democrats were very agitated, very motivated to try and give Donald Trump a black eye. But the Republican base rallied to Handel in the face of the threat to Donald Trump.

"There's going to be some finger pointing among the Democrats. They have to really think about 2018, and what districts to compete in and what candidates they need."

Mid-term elections in November next year present the Democratic Party with an opportunity to claw back some seats in the House, where Republicans now hold a majority.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2017, with the headline 'Georgia win buoys Republicans and Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe