For the second time in a week, Republicans dodged a potential political cataclysm.
Last Tuesday it was a special election in Kansas where the Republican candidate did just enough to win. This Tuesday it was another special election -- this one in suburban Atlanta -- where a slew of GOP candidates managed to keep Democrat Jon Ossoff just under 50%, forcing a June runoff.
An Ossoff victory, which nearly came to pass despite the long Republican tradition in the district, would have sent even marginally vulnerable House Republicans into a panic that the unpopularity of President Donald Trump could bring them down next November.
"This race is absolutely and entirely a referendum on President Trump," said one Republican consultant granted anonymity to speak candidly about the contest. "Every single vote Jon Ossoff receives is a rebuke of Trump from within GA-06."
Sensing opportunity, national Democrats flooded the race with money -- Ossoff raised an eye-popping $8.3 million over the last three months, 95% of which came from out of the state of Georgia. That massive influx of cash, coupled with a lack of any other serious Democrats in the race and a disdain among many Republicans in the district for Trump's in-your-face style, made for a surprising opportunity for Democrats in the south -- a region where the party has been decimated over the last decade.
And they came close. Very close. For much of Tuesday night, Ossoff looked as though he might break 50%. Ossoff will now face former Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Republican who finished in clear second despite running around 30 points behind Ossoff.
While Ossoff and national Democrats acknowledged that they hoped to win the seat outright Tuesday due to the crowded and fractured GOP field, Ossoff will likely enter the runoff with Handel as a slight favorite. The question for Ossoff, and Democrats more broadly, is whether they can successfully link an establishment Republican like Handel to the less-than-popular Trump over the course of a two month, one-versus-one runoff slog.
Complicating Democrats' calculus is the massive cost of running an extended TV ad campaign in the 6th, which is covered by the very high-priced Atlanta media market. (Republicans, of course, will be faced with the same money issue.)
What's difficult to know is how Ossoff's showing will be viewed by the Democratic base and the donor community. Will it be evidence that even seats in the solid South can be won thanks to Trump's unpopularity? Or will Democrats regard it as a disappointment given the perfect storm of factors that seemed to be lining up in Ossoff's favor for Tuesday's vote?
What I know is that winning and coming close to winning aren't the same thing. And this is the second time in as many weeks that Democrats had high hopes and didn't see their best case scenarios realized when all the votes were cast.
Democrats, out of power in Congress and the White House, need a spark to convince themselves they can take back all that they had lost. Georgia's 6th district was seen as the best chance for that spark. It didn't happen on Tuesday night -- and now Democrats will have to wait almost two months to see if they can start to build momentum for the November 2018 midterms.