STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Democrats seeking some way back into power in Washington face a question. The question is which of 435 House seats should they try to compete in to win a House majority by 2018? Well, they gambled millions of dollars on a conservative district in Georgia in a special election last night, and they lost. Karen Handel is the new Republican representative for Georgia's 6th District.
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KAREN HANDEL: Tonight I stand before you, extraordinarily humbled and honored at the tremendous privilege and high responsibility that you and the people across the 6th District have given to me to represent you in the United States House of Representatives.
INSKEEP: This district is suburban Atlanta/north Georgia. Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff got 48 percent of the vote to make a runoff, but he wasn't able to top that in the runoff.
So what do we make of all this? Well, let's ask somebody who can help us analyze it. Amy Walter is the national editor of The Cook Political Report, and she's in our studios. Thanks for coming by once again.
AMY WALTER: You're very welcome.
INSKEEP: Democrats really, really, really wanted this race. What to make of them coming up short?
WALTER: Well, Democrats did want to win, very badly of course. And they invested a great deal of money here. But I think what we learned last night is that while Democrats may have an enthusiasm advantage nationally - there are a lot of Democrats right now who are fired up; they are donating money; they are engaged in an election that is still many, many months away - they have a geographic disadvantage. And what that means is that there are simply very few congressional districts out there that are in the - that are competitive enough for them to easily pick off. In fact, if Democrats are to win the majority in 2018, they've got to win districts that look more like Georgia 6. And that means it takes more than just turning out Democrats. They also have to find a way to pull in some independent voters and to pull in some Republicans.
INSKEEP: Let's be real about what that geographic disadvantage for Democrats or advantage for Republicans is. One thing is that Democratic votes are concentrated...
INSKEEP: ...In cities. Right? And the other thing is that Republicans won a lot of state elections the last time there was...
WALTER: That's right.
INSKEEP: ...Redistricting after 2010, and so they got to draw a lot of the maps under which everybody has to compete now.
WALTER: That's right. Both of those things help Republicans.
INSKEEP: Which means that Democrats, if they're going to get anywhere, would need perhaps a more conservative message than what they've had. Is that the lesson here?
WALTER: There is going to be some finger-pointing, not surprisingly, among Democrats about what the Democrats should have done better. He ran a conservative message, in part because he needed to win over some Republicans. Just having Democratic support wasn't enough.
And there are a lot of Democrats right now who are saying, we can't win with a conservative message. Our base and our voters are going to turn out and be engaged if we have a strong contrast with the president. And that's another thing that's important to point out here. For Republicans, while the president may not be overall, nationally particularly popular - he's sitting somewhere between 38 and 40 percent...
WALTER: ...Approval rating - among Republicans, he's still popular. Republicans are still turning out for Republicans. They haven't abandoned the president. That is very, very important when Democrats are trying to win over seats that are Republican.
INSKEEP: When you say Republicans are still turning out for Republicans, do you mean that there are likely people in the Georgia 6th District or, going forward, other districts around the country who disapprove of the president or are embarrassed by his behavior on Twitter - who knows what? - have suspicions about him, but they're still willing to vote Republican for someone and separate Karen Handel from the president in their minds?
WALTER: Yeah. I think that they have been able to either, one, say, I'm still sticking with the president, regardless of whether - or how I voted in the 2016 election. But more important, I think what it suggests is that they are not willing to abandon the Republican Party. There are a whole bunch of Democrats who believe fervently that the Republican base is going to leave the president - that he's going to find himself in deep, deep trouble with his base. That hasn't happened.
INSKEEP: Is there also still a lot of passion for President Trump aside from just determined resignation to be Republican?
WALTER: Absolutely. The difference is that right now, while Republicans are sticking with the president, they're not as enthusiastic about their support, at least nationally. When you look at the polling, Democrats are more intense in their dislike of President Trump than Republicans are intense in their like. But again, when it comes to turning out and voting, they've supported him.
Look, the turnout problem still, for an overall message for Democrats, a thing they can feel better about in these last four special elections. They've overperformed their generic advantage. That is to say, in all four of these special elections, they've done better...
INSKEEP: So far this year, right?
WALTER: ...So far this year than they normally would do, what their average performance should be, by about 7 points. If you take that performance and put it in more competitive districts - even districts that Trump carried, even districts that Mitt Romney carried - that is still very good for Democrats.
INSKEEP: So Democrats might have some - a chance in 2018.
WALTER: Absolutely. Let's - we always overanalyze...
WALTER: ...Each and every election 'cause it's what we like to do, and we love a narrative. But we have a long way to go. We're only 150 days into this.
INSKEEP: So much more to go. Just a few seconds here - Seth Moulton, Democratic representative from Massachusetts, said on Twitter last night in response to this defeat - (reading) time to stop rehashing 2016 and talk about the future.
WALTER: Listen, there's going to be a lot of finger-pointing in the Democratic circles. The only question right now is whether it's going to be fatal or not, whether they're going to really turn on each other and hurt their chances in 2018.
INSKEEP: Amy Walter, always a pleasure talking with you.
WALTER: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: She's with The Cook Political Report.
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