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Five Lessons From the Georgia Special Election

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Republican Karen Handel wins Georgia special election 2:07

In the most expensive House election in U.S. history, Republican Karen Handel last night defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia, 52 percent to 48 percent, giving the GOP plenty of bragging rights. “Democrats would do much better as a party if they got together with Republicans on Healthcare, Tax Cuts, Security. Obstruction doesn't work!” President Trump tweeted this morning.

Republicans also won — narrowly — another special congressional election in South Carolina, giving them a 4-0 record in the congressional specials to replace Republicans who are now serving in Trump’s cabinet. Here are our five takeaways from last night’s contests:

1. Republicans know how to win on their turf

What catapulted Handel to victory in GA-6 was the simple fact that the Republican base got engaged. Indeed, the 48 percent that Ossoff received last night EXACTLY matches the 48 percent he won back in April, which means that Handel consolidated the GOP vote — after Republicans threw everything at Ossoff (Nancy Pelosi, Kathy Griffin, Osama bin Laden, the Scalise shooting, and even Han Solo).

Big credit goes to the National Republican Congressional Committee, and that’s a good sign for the GOP heading into the midterms. (Had national Republicans not sounded the alarm back in April, Ossoff might have crossed 50 percent and won the seat outright back then.) Bottom line: Republicans can exhale, although we will see how they fare on not-so friendly turf in Virginia this November.

2. Democrats have little to show for their anti-Trump resistance

Democrats threw everything they had into GA-6, and Republicans still won. This is only going to embolden Trump — and perhaps also Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on health care, as well as with the NRCC on retirements. Despite Trump’s 37 percent job approval rating (per Gallup), Trump hasn’t cost his party anything — at least not yet. And you have to wonder if Ossoff didn’t campaign HARD ENOUGH against Trump, especially after the initial vote in April.

3. Nancy Pelosi remains a big drag on Democrats in red states/districts

While national Republicans threw the kitchen sink at Ossoff, perhaps their most potent — and consistent — attack was linking him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Democrats have to admit they have a Pelosi problem, especially in red states and districts. Yes, she brings money and legislative savvy to the party. But if Democratic candidates like Ossoff are going to campaign on change, Republicans can quickly undercut that message by simply showing Pelosi. It’s a legitimate question Democrats must ask themselves: Can they win back the House with Pelosi promising to stay in power?

4. Democrats are out-performing what they did in 2016

So here’s the silver lining for Democrats from last night: They are out-performing where they were in 2016. Just look at the numbers:

  • KS-4 in 2016: Mike Pompeo 61%, Daniel Giroux 30% (R+31)
  • KS-4 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 60%, Clinton 33% (R+27)
  • KS-4 in 2017: Ron Estes 53%, James Thompson 46% (R+7)
  • GA-6 in 2016: Tom Price 62%, Rodney Stooksbury 38% (R+24)
  • GA-6 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 48%, Clinton 47% (R+1)
  • GA-6 in 2017 (initial round): John Ossoff 48%, Karen Handel 20%, Bob Gray 11%, Dan Moody 9%, Judson Hill 9%.
  • GA-6 in 2017 (runoff): Handel 52%, Ossoff 48% (R+4)
  • MT-AL in 2016: Ryan Zinke 56%, Denise Juneau 40% (R+16)
  • MT in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 57%, Clinton 36% (R+21)
  • MT-AL in 2017: Gianforte 50%, Quist 44% (R+6)
  • SC-5 in 2016: Mick Mulvaney 59%, Fran Person 39% (R+20)
  • SC-5 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 57%, Clinton 39% (R+18)
  • SC-5 in 2017: Ralph Norman 51%, Archie Parnell 48% (R+3)

As the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman writes, “Democratic candidates in these [special] elections have won an average of 68 percent of the votes Hillary Clinton won in their districts, while Republican candidates have won an average of 54 percent of Trump's votes. That's an enthusiasm gap that big enough to gravely imperil the Republican majority next November — even if it didn't show up in ‘the special election to end all special elections.’”

5. Republicans had to spend big to hold on to these seats

Yes, Jon Ossoff raised a considerable amount of money in Georgia. But what didn’t get as much attention is the nearly $14 million the NRCC, RNC, and Congressional Leadership Fund Super PAC spent on independent expenditures in GA-6 (compared with about $6 million spent by Democratic counterparts). Indeed, the total GOP price tag (NRCC, CLF, RNC) for these four special elections was at least $19 million, versus at least $7 million for Democrats (DCCC, House Majority PAC, Patriot Majority).

GOP health care bill: What to expect before next week's vote 3:05

The two competing midterm forces to watch

So what does this all mean for the 2018 midterms, which are still a year and a half away? View it as a tale of two competing forces — the GOP knowing how to win in red states/districts vs. Dems outperforming where they were in 2016. Tell us which force is stronger a year from now, and we’ll tell you which party has the midterm advantage.

GOP senators will get their health-care bill later this week

As we wrote above, don’t be surprised if Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are emboldened on health care after last night’s GA-6 win. NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell: “Republican senators are expected to learn the contents of legislation to overhaul health care on Thursday as their party leadership continues to work toward a vote on it before they leave town for the July 4 recess. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday that he would release a ‘discussion draft’ of legislation to both his Republican members and the public later this week, and he acknowledged for the first time that a vote would ‘likely’ take place next week. So far, the public has received little information about the contents of the bill that would revamp nearly 20 percent of the economy and affect millions of Americans except through the few leaks to the press.”

White House can’t say if Trump believes Russia interfered in 2016 election

Outside of health care and GA-6, it’s going to be a big Russia day on Capitol Hill, with the Senate Intelligence Committee holding a hearing at 9:30 am ET, and with former Obama Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson testifying before the House Intel Committee at 10:00 am ET. And they all come after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was unable to say if President Trump believes Russia interfered in the 2016 election. By the way, Trump received a cybersecurity briefing at the White House at 11:30 am ET.

Trump has held just one solo news conference as president

The numbers and comparison with past presidents:

  • Clinton solo press conferences: 7
  • Clinton joint press conferences: 10
  • W. Bush solo press conferences: 3
  • W. Bush joint press conferences: 8
  • Obama solo press conferences: 6
  • Obama joint press conferences: 9
  • Trump solo press conferences: 1
  • Trump joint press conferences: 10

Trump’s Day

President Trump receives a cybersecurity briefing at 11:30 am ET, and he holds a rally in Cedar Rapids, IA at 8:00 pm ET.