KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Democrats are reeling from their loss yesterday in the special election in Georgia. It was widely seen as an early indicator of the party's chances to gain control of the House of Representatives in 2018. We're going to talk about what the results might mean and what they might not mean with NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro. Hey there.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So this race, of course, got tons of attention nationally. More money was spent on this election than any other for Congress ever. Republicans are relieved with their win. For Democrats it seems like there's been a lot of finger pointing today.
MONTANARO: Undoubtedly. I mean, it's best summed up by two responses from two different wings of the Democratic left. On the one hand, you have Jim Dean, who runs the progressive activist group Democracy for America. He said defeating Republicans requires running on a bold, progressive vision rather than what he says are establishment Democrats and what they - their sort of playbook has been and what they've done before.
On the other hand, you have this congressman, Seth Moulton, from Massachusetts who backed a challenger to Nancy Pelosi when she was up for House minority leader again. And Pelosi factored heavily into this race. Republicans ran ad after ad after ad using Pelosi's image, trying to tie Ossoff to her and make him a Pelosi puppet. And Moulton says that the result really should be, quote, "a wakeup call" for Democrats and that they need to focus on the future, have a, quote, "bigger tent" and stop rehashing the 2016 presidential campaign.
MCEVERS: Let's talk about President Trump a little bit. His approval rating is pretty low. Did that affect how Republican Karen Handel ran her campaign in this race?
MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, you know, part of what happened here, you know, is that Karen Handel really tried to walk the line when it came to Donald Trump. She didn't want to have to embrace Donald Trump. She didn't talk about him very much during the campaign. But at the same time, she understood he's the president.
She came out the day after the first round of voting and said, look, he's the leader of our party. And he's welcome to come to Georgia 6 to campaign for me if that's what he wants to do. So it may be a roadmap for Republicans in the future as they have to deal with a president who might not have such great approval ratings.
MCEVERS: President Trump on Twitter then called for Democrats to stop their obstruction and work with Republicans. Does this win help that agenda along?
MONTANARO: In the short run, yes. I mean, Republicans really feel like they have the wind at their backs. If Karen Handel had lost, the Democrats were - and Democrats were able to pick up what has really been a reliable Republican seat, there might have been some second thoughts in the Senate about that health care bill, for example, that's likely to drop any day now. It's been written in private. And I had one former top aide say that he thought it was possible the Senate would have shelved the bill and the House come up with something driven by Republican moderates but not now. Now Republicans are full steam ahead.
MCEVERS: Wow. I mean, it sounds like this race was pretty important. But what does that - what does it mean for the midterms, for next year? Does this mean that Democrats will not be able to take back the House - the million-dollar question.
MONTANARO: I know. And it - you know, I never like to overinterpret special elections because that can be a real problem. You know, it's always been less likely - less than likely that Democrats take back the House because of how the districts have been drawn.
Just to give you an example of this and to tell you how much things have changed since redistricting after the last census, in 2006, the last time Democrats won the House, almost 30 percent of the House was seen as potentially competitive. Now that number is below 10 percent - 10 percent. That means fewer than 40 seats or so, you know, or maybe, you know, less than that. Democrats need to pick up 24 seats overall.
So it's possible. It's possible Democrats could take back the House. But this was the type of seat Democrats needed to win and just weren't able to do it. You know, this was educated, suburban, moderate Republicans. They lost them. And their margin for error next year was always narrow, and now it just got narrower.
MCEVERS: Does that mean they just don't have a winning strategy yet?
MONTANARO: They really don't have a message or an agenda that appeals to red state voters in the South, in these red state districts or, frankly, to young voters. And you're seeing that Obama coalition that had been glued together really kind of crumble, fall apart, and Democrats needing to piece it back together and still haven't figured out how.
MCEVERS: NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro. Thank you so much.
MONTANARO: Thank you.
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