Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan Reuters

Republicans fended off Democrats on Tuesday in special elections for a pair of seats in the US House of Representatives in South Carolina and Georgia, one of which was the most expensive House race in history.

While Republicans enjoy a wide majority in the House of Representatives, Democrats looked to the two GOP-leaning districts – Georgia’s 6th and South Carolina’s 5th congressional district – for symbolic victories they hoped would show anger with Trump in the Democratic base translating into victories at the ballot box.

A Democratic win in Georgia’s 6th district, which covers Atlanta’s predominantly white upper-middle class suburbs, would have been a stinging rebuke to the president. Until he was tapped by President Trump to lead the Health and Human Services Department, Tom Price represented the district, winning 61.5% of the vote in 2016.

The seat has been represented by Republicans since former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich first won it in 1978.

But Trump performed relatively poorly in the district last year, narrowly defeating Hillary Clinton 48% to 47%, far below the 61% to 38% margin of victory for Romney in 2012 or McCain’s 62% to 37% margin in 2008. Observers have thus described the Georgia race as a bellwether for what have been described as 'reluctant Trump voters' - members of the Republican base more aligned with the party's establishment wing; typically white-collar, college-educated ideological conservatives with significantly above-average incomes.

Democrats hoped 30-year old Jon Ossoff, an American Jewish filmmaker and Democratic staffer, could flip the seat, handing beleaguered Democrats the symbolic victory they’ve been searching for since Trump’s election last November.

Donors pumped tens of millions of dollars into Ossoff’s campaign, for a race that eventually topped $50 million, making it the most expensive congressional race in US history. Nearly 88% of the funds raised for the election went to Ossoff, giving him a seven-to-one margin over his GOP opponent. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee alone dropped more than $5 million into the race. Much of the money which flowed into Ossoff's campaign coffers came not only from outside of the 6th district, but from out of state, with a plurality of Ossoff's funds coming from donors in California and Massachusetts. A veritable army of 12,000 volunteers for the Ossoff campaign carried out extensive get-out-the-vote operations.

Nevertheless, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel defeated Ossoff 52 to 48 in Tuesday’s election. While most polls during the race had shown Ossoff winning, Handel enjoyed a last-minute surge ahead of election day, with the final RealClearPolitics average of polls giving the Republican a slight advantage.

In South Carolina, Republican Ralph Norman defeated Archie Parnell 51% to 48%, keeping the district in GOP hands, but again with a far narrower margin of victory that in past votes. Last year, Mick Mulvaney, now the Trump White House’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) won in the 5th district by 20 points, 59% to 39%.

The losses in Georgia and South Carolina mark the third consecutive defeat for Democrats after they lost a special election in Montana last month, when Greg Gianforte beat Rob Quist 50% to 44% - despite Gianforte having allegedly assaulted a Guardian journalist a day before the election.

Despite the defeats, Democrats have taken comfort in the narrow margins in each of the three special elections. In all three cases, Democrats challenged Republicans in GOP-leaning districts and managed to far outperform their 2016 numbers.

Special elections, like midterms, tend to diverge from “on” election years which feature a presidential election at the top of the ballot. Members of the party out of the White House tend to enjoy a significant boost, as their base is more engaged to vote against the governing party, while the base of the incumbent president’s party tends to be less likely to turn out.

In 2011, the phenomenon helped Republicans flip the heavily Democratic New York 9th district, handing Bob Turner a 52% to 47% margin of victory less than a year after he lost 39% to 61%.

Such victories can sometimes presage bigger wins in midterms.

In 2009, for example, Republicans were able to bring a special election for New York’s 20th district to a virtual tie, with Democrat Scott Murphy eking out a 50.2% to 49.8% win for a seat his predecessor won handily in 2008, 62% to 38%.

A year later, Republicans won the seat 55 to 45. More importantly, Republicans swept House, Senate, and gubernatorial elections across the country, taking control of the House and narrowing the margin in the Senate.

With narrow Republican margins in GOP-leaning districts this time around, Tuesday’s special elections may auger well for Democrats in 2018.

Another takeaway from Tuesday's elections, however, is that the 'reluctant Trump voter' is still sticking with the GOP, handing the party two more victories despite unprecedented efforts by Democrats in the special elections.

Meanwhile, some Republican backers claimed the wins in Georgia and South Carolina affirmed the party's electoral strength, with conservative pundits noting that the massive advantage in funding and get-out-the-vote operations enjoyed by Ossoff in the Georgia special election was unprecedented - yet was unable to yield a victory there.