There are people who blushingly downplay their impact on the events around them. Then there is President Trump.
“Glad to be of help!” he tweeted early this morning, in response to the results of a special Congressional election in Georgia, where a young Democrat with enormous momentum fell shy of the 50 percent of votes he needed to avoid a runoff in June.
It was classic Trump, taking both an unwarranted victory lap and dubious, outsize credit. What happened in Georgia was hardly an affirmation of his leadership or sway. It was a dodged bullet: nothing more, nothing less.
It wasn’t the end of the story, either. With just over 48 percent of the vote, the Democrat, Jon Ossoff, did well enough for liberal groups and party leaders to maintain enthusiasm going into the runoff, which pits him against Karen Handel, the top Republican finisher.
Trump won this conservative Congressional district by just 1 percentage point in November, so the fact that Ossoff missed the 50-percent mark by 2 points will be credibly interpreted by some observers as a sign that there has been no great turn here away from Trump, no tide of disenchantment that amounts to a dire prophecy for Republicans in 2018.
Jon Ossoff speaking to supporters last night in Atlanta. Credit Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times
But this Congressional district can just as plausibly be seen as prime and enduring evidence of how underwhelming the support for Trump is and always was. The district went for Mitt Romney in 2012 by 23 percentage points.
With Trump’s incessant self-congratulating reveries about his Electoral College upset, he presents himself as some magical conqueror, but his tally of electors was decidedly un-magical in the context of the last four decades and even less charmed when one examines the vote count behind it. Just 77,000 ballots in three states won him the presidency, and of course he lost the popular vote — by a lot.
While there were districts in the Rust Belt that went his way after having gone for Barack Obama previously, there were also districts, like the one in Georgia, where Trump did worse than a generic Republican would be expected to.
That’s a big part of why Democrats had such high hopes for Ossoff — that and the fact that Trump’s surprising election and tumultuous presidency so far have energized progressives and other Democrats in a manner that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy most certainly didn’t.
Are they worked up enough to foil and eventually topple Trump? More to the point, are they organized, disciplined and pragmatic enough to turn the passion of marches and street protests into concrete results at the polls?
An outright Ossoff victory in Georgia on Tuesday would have been a resounding yes, but the absence of that isn’t a definitive no. It’s a very loud maybe: a question mark in a situation where many partisans and prognosticators itched for an exclamation point. And many dynamics made this an imperfect referendum on Trump’s performance in office and the mood of the electorate.
Prime among them: Ossoff, 30, has real shortcomings as a candidate. Although he isn’t necessarily hurt by being a political novice — voters often welcome fresh faces — he can come across as callow. He was skewered in negative ads as a lightweight. And he was embarrassed in the home stretch of his campaign by reminders that he isn’t currently residing in the district that he’s seeking to represent.
His poise and stamina will be severely tested over the next two months. So will Democrats’ tenacity. The party’s candidate outperformed expectations in a special Congressional election in Kansas last week, but there, too, Democrats were denied the moment of triumph that they so sorely need after the humiliation of Nov. 8 and the diminution of Democratic power nationwide during the Obama years.
They remain hungry for it. It eludes them still. That’s the takeaway from Tuesday’s special election, which demonstrated anew that Trump’s considerable weakness doesn’t translate automatically and axiomatically into a Democratic advantage.
But if Trump thinks that what happened proves his strength, and that the election turned on his tweets against Ossoff in the final days and hours, he’s sorely mistaken and seriously delusional.
Not for the first time. And surely not for the last.