×

Why the Handel-Ossoff race never mattered (outside of Georgia)

  • The outcome of the Handel-Ossoff congressional race in Georgia never really mattered on the national stage.
  • Democrats will definitely pick up seats in the 2018 congressional race.
  • The race may change one thing: The type of candidates who run in 2018 and beyond.
  • Republicans should start worrying about Trump's low approval ratings next summer.
Supporters for Georgia 6th Congressional District Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff rally and wave at passing cars outside St Mary's Orthodox Church, Handel's polling place in Roswell.
Bita Honarvar | Reuters
Supporters for Georgia 6th Congressional District Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff rally and wave at passing cars outside St Mary's Orthodox Church, Handel's polling place in Roswell.

The most expensive congressional race in history just wrapped up, but its significance stops at its astronomical price tag. Here's an objective truth about the contest between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff: It only mattered to the people of the 6th District in Georgia. They are the only ones who will now be represented by Handel, instead of Ossoff. No one else really should have cared.

The outcome was always going to have a minimal national impact. Many pundits felt the contest would be a signal about the Democrats' chances of retaking the 24 seats they need to reclaim the House in 2018. That was never the case. As it happens, those chances are better informed by history than by the result of a special election.

The Democrats are guaranteed to pick up some seats in 2018. Since the end of the Civil War, the president's party has picked up seats in just three midterm elections. Never has the president's party picked up more than 10. And each time the president's party gained seats in a midterm election they benefited from extraordinary and unusual circumstances. In 1998, the Democrats gained seats because voters reacted negatively to Republican impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. In 2002, the Republicans gained seats because their party benefited from the perception that it was stronger on national security in the aftermath of 9/11. Importantly, in both 1998 and 2002, the president's approval rating sat at higher than 60 percent in the polls.

"I do think Tuesday's outcome might have an impact on the type of candidates we see in 2018. As Trump reminded the world on Twitter, the Democrats are now zero for five in special elections since his victory."

This means Republicans should be concerned about President Trump's low approval rating. But not now. They should be concerned about that figure next summer, when it becomes statistically determinative. Similarly, other factors to watch like economic growth and the parties' performance on generic ballot polls—factors research has shown to be important when predicting midterm election outcomes—are all unknowable right now.

We really can't be sure what is going to happen in 2018, but we can certainly say that Jon Ossoff's loss doesn't change the big picture. The Democrats will pick up seats, but because of the stronger economy and Trump's smaller coattails, 2018 probably will not be a replay of the Republicans' 63-seat pick-up in 2010. Indeed, typically, the swing in a Congressional election is small—the median change recently has only been about seven or eight seats. All of this would have been the same no matter who won.

Another reason people paid attention to the Handel-Ossoff race was because they thought a loss by Handel in a district Republicans had won comfortably for decades would trigger a wave of retirements. This was also a preposterous thought. Over time, members of Congress have become better and better at insulating themselves from outside forces. Between 1960 and 2010, nearly 95 percent of House incumbents won re-election. Why would a rational member of Congress think a special election in a different state a year and a half from Election Day would mean they would lose a district they normally win easily? Come on.

Nevertheless, I do think Tuesday's outcome might have an impact on the type of candidates we see in 2018. As Trump reminded the world on Twitter, the Democrats are now zero for five in special elections since his victory. Collectively, this string of losses could discourage some quality Democratic challengers (typically people with office-holding experience) from contesting other Republican seats. Marginally, that might hurt the party's future chances.

While one can understand why activists on both sides flocked to this race, from my point of view, a lot of time and money was spent battling over symbolism. In that sense, the real winner last night was no one.

Commentary by David O'Connell, an assistant professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and the author of "God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion." His research interests include the presidency, religion and politics, and American political development.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

WATCH: Trump vs. Obama: Here's who inherited the better economy