On the one hand is the good news for Republicans: Democrat Jon Ossoff outspent Republican Karen Handel by a 7-to-1 margin, yet Handel won by a greater margin than President Trump did in November.
Then there's the bad news for the GOP: A district Republicans have typically won by 20 points or more is now a swing seat. And two dozen suburban seats currently in GOP hands actually went for Hillary Clinton in November.
If Republicans take Handel's win as a sign they can breathe easy, it would be the height of hubris and historical ignorance. Recall, Democrats won the first seven special elections of the Obama era — just before the Tea Party tsunami hit.
Republicans need to learn some tough lessons from this race.
One is that even though Democrats are wrong when they claim they've been excluded from power by GOP gerrymandering, Republicans cannot rely on helpfully drawn districts to keep their majority. If they lose public confidence, they'll be thrown out.
By traditional measures, Georgia's 6th District should have been an easy win for them. It's an overwhelmingly white Southern district. Democrats first created the 6th District to include Atlanta's northern suburbs in 1992 to corrall all the area's GOP voters into one seat. As recently as 2012, Mitt Romney won there by 23 points. But it took only a couple of years and a change in the political winds to make it a battleground.
Given that there are dozens of GOP seats more competitive than this one, it's obvious that Democrats could win the House in the right political environment. That's a danger Republicans cannot afford to ignore.
Another lesson is that the electorate is fluid, both demographically and geographically. Groups and states move from one party to the other, sometimes slowly but sometimes so quickly no one notices until it's too late.
The story of 2016 was that Republicans won working-class voters in Northern and Midwestern states. The flip side of this is that they also lost support among better-educated and wealthier white voters.
This isn't a new dynamic. Upscale suburbs have been moving toward the Dems for decades. Consider suburban Washington, D.C.; Westchester County, New York; and Philadelphia's collar counties. Virginia switched from red to nearly solid blue. The same trend was apparent in 2016 in Texas, Georgia and Arizona. And Handel's Alpharetta district has gone from bright red to a swing district.
This swap between upscale and downscale voters hints at a future map where Georgia and the South look much bluer and the interior North (and perhaps states such as Maine) much redder. Republicans face a tricky task. They must consolidate and build on their newfound working-class support in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and the like, while holding on to the more educated and wealthier voters in suburban Georgia, Texas and Arizona. If their support from either group drops without corresponding gains elsewhere, they'll lose big time.
Thus, Georgia 6 teaches Republicans that they need to fight to keep upscale voters. No longer can the GOP try to add up electoral majorities that rely on the elites voting Republican. They must embrace their new role as the party of the working class in a way that doesn't depend on Trump's personality and doesn't clash with conservative ideas.
Republicans must therefore find ways of appealing to both groups.
One proven method is to show competence in governing. Romney gave off this vibe and thrived in upscale suburbs. Handel has been running in this area for over a decade and was elected statewide. If congressional Republicans allow much-needed reforms of healthcare and taxes to become victims of intramural bickering, they will be judged incompetent.
Meanwhile, the party must appeal to the new Trump Republicans by offering something more than traditional conservatism and a mere middle finger to the elites. Republicans cannot afford either to abandon Trump's better ideas or to put on an act they don't sincerely believe in.
Being the party of downscale voters and advancing free enterprise go hand-in-hand, for it would mean an agenda that opposes bailouts, smashes corporate welfare, and removes tax and regulatory complexities that suppress opportunity and lobbyists and those who can afford them. Targeting tax cuts at those who need them (say, cutting the payroll tax and increasing the standard deduction) could take priority over cutting the upper rates.
The best case scenario for Republicans in 2018 is that a strongly recovering economy will put them in a position to argue that tax reform and regulatory reform are working — for everyone, not just for the wealthy.
A Republican Party that depends on the wealthy would dwindle toward extinction because Democrats have become the party of the elites. The public school system serves the elites well. The Left's culture war appeals to the college-aged and 20-something offspring of the elites. Big government is perfectly navigable, and even profitable, for those with connections to power.
With the massive tightening in just two years of Georgia's 6th District, along with the other too-close races where Republicans have squeaked by so far this year, the GOP has received its wake-up call. Republicans will not face such record-setting campaign spending and national attention in many other races, but they need to figure out what works and what doesn't if they expect to continue as a governing party after November 2018.