By the time Americans wake up Wednesday, there will in all likelihood be a new representative-elect en route from Georgia's sixth Congressional District to Washington. What that person does upon arrival is pretty much beside the point. It's the letter "R" or "D" next to his or her name that's become a national political fixation.
Both Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, and Karen Handel, the Republican, are party people. Despite taking steps to distance themselves from their would-be future colleagues, neither figure to turn up on Capitol Hill and make much of a stir. The winner of Tuesday's special election will be granted a relatively brief lease on the seat, about 18 months, most of them unfolding in the muck of yet another campaign season.
And still, this contest -- the most expensive in congressional history -- has very real meaning to both parties. It is, and has been for months, the foremost contest of the Donald Trump era and the first that Democrats and Republicans seem to agree should be taken as a referendum on the White House and a bellwether for what's to come in the 2018 midterm elections.
So there are lessons to be learned. Both sides are eager to begin sorting, shaping and spinning them, and then arguing with one another and amongst themselves over how those lessons should influence future tactics. Wednesday morning is not an end -- it's just another beginning.
Defeat in a district they've owned for a generation will put fear into Republicans who even a few months ago considered their seats safe from any meaningful challenge. Will it create a panic, though, with nervy incumbents flouting leadership in an effort to save their own hides? That still seems a ways off.
Across the aisle, the stakes are higher. Eyes are twitchier. Democrats are desperate for a win and some sign of an exit from the cold, lonely highway they've been driving since the late evening hours of November 8, 2016. Whether or not Ossoff, a 30-year-old moderate whose bravest moment probably came on the day he announced his bid, has the directions home is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
A loss would add another layer of complications to a familiar, divisive narrative. On the left, questions about the party leadership's broader strategy -- or lack thereof -- will grow louder still. Yes, Sen. Bernie Sanders is backing Ossoff. No, his supporters will not suffer another stumble any more quietly than the last.
Trump won this district by about a percentage point. If Handel prevails, polls suggest her margin will be similarly narrow. Some Democrats will be quick to note that Tom Price, the congressman whose departure to join the administration created the high-profile vacancy, won re-election last year by more than 20 points. Others, however, will suggest, given the national spotlight, that comparing Ossoff's performance to Clinton's strong showing would make for a more accurate assessment.
Democrats are also sure to argue that, win or lose, requiring the GOP to dedicate gobs of money to defending a district that House Speaker Newt Gingrich once called home should be cause for hope. Others -- along with every Republican who feels like chatting (or tweeting) -- will note the Democrats' own massive investment, and either rage or chuckle at what that spending got in return.
Take your pick. If there is any certainty about this race, it is that uncertainty's reign will continue on long after its conclusion. There will be celebration and recrimination. Signs and wonders. But actual lessons? Those will be more difficult to come by.
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