It’s impossible to read the result in Georgia’s Sixth—the most expensive congressional race in U.S. history—as anything but a huge Republican victory. Notwithstanding national polls suggesting about 39 percent approval for the Republican president, a more-or-less standard-issue Republican candidate won by about 4 percentage points in exactly the kind of affluent, educated district supposedly most at risk in the Trump era. Whatever distaste they may inwardly feel for President Trump’s antics, when it comes time to vote, the Republicans of Cobb, DeKalb, and Fulton Counties did not express it at the ballot box.
But a big win is not the same thing as good news. The special elections of May and June 2017 offered Republicans a last chance for a course correction before the 2018 election cycle starts in earnest. A loss in Georgia would have sent a message of caution. The victory discredits that argument, and empowers those who want Trumpism without restraint, starting with the president himself.
Trump has practiced rare circumspection over the past week. When he departed for Camp David on Saturday, journalists prepared themselves for a weekend firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Instead, the president for once kept cool. Whatever intervention was staged, it worked. Will it now continue to work? Remember when Donald Trump tweeted that outlier Rasmussen poll showing him with 50 percent approval? Not many people took that poll seriously, including Trump’s own people. But the president believed it, and his belief has now seemingly been ratified. Trump will hear loud and clear the message: “I’m getting away with this. My voters are sticking with me. Let Trump be Trump. Dial it up!”
Republicans in Congress have also been encouraged to drive past their last off-ramp. Had the Democrats snatched the Georgia Sixth seat, perhaps some GOP senators might have succumbed to nerves about the repeal of Obamacare. Not now!
After Tuesday night, we are closer both to the repeal of Obamacare and to the firing of the special counsel investigating the Russia matter. Donald Trump may still grumble that congressional Republicans are mean. Congressional Republicans will continue to complain on background that the White House is crooked, chaotic, and compromised by Russia. But the high tension of the past has subsided; the distinctions between pro-Trump and anti-anti-Trump—between country club, Tea Party, and Trumpist factions—all are fading away. The Republicans of the Georgia Sixth were offered a safe and limited way to distance themselves from Trump, perhaps even to curb his excesses. They rejected it. He is theirs; they are his.
Both Paul Ryan and Donald Trump can fairly claim credit for Tuesday’s success—each certainly has avoided the blame he would have pinned on the other in defeat. The two leaders may still dislike and distrust each other. As a practical political matter, however, each is blurring into the other: their support ever more exactly overlapping; their agendas increasingly identical; their political prospects joined and interdependent. Obamacare repeal and Russia cover-up; the Gorsuch nomination and the Mar-a-Lago shakedowns; pussy-grabbing and tax-cutting: not everyone who champions the first half of those pairings is comfortable with the second, but they have agreed to hazard their political futures together. Over the past few weeks, that gamble has paid off again and again. Maybe it will be different in the future, but that future remains a far way’s off.