WASHINGTON — Republicans from the Philadelphia suburbs can exhale — at least for now.
The GOP win Tuesday night in Georgia's much-watched special congressional election showed again that they have a path to victory even in moderate districts where President Trump has struggled.
So while suburban congressmen like Ryan Costello and Patrick Meehan still face a tough road ahead, the GOP incumbents from Chester and Delaware Counties can at least keep the panic button tucked away.
Because, after more than a year of predictions that Trump's poor approval ratings would sink mainstream Republicans in swing districts, it still hasn't happened. The Georgia result, like those in the Chester and Delaware-based Sixth and Seventh districts last November, show that even when traditional GOP voters sour on Trump, many stick with other Republicans, distinguishing conventional GOP figures from the unconventional president.
If that continues, it could be a major factor locally and nationally as Democrats try to win back the House by targeting GOP seats in moderate territory.
Consider: Karen Handel won her suburban Atlanta race last night by nearly 4 percentage points, more than doubling Trump's 1.5-point margin there in November, even with the president's approval rating in the district mired in the 40s. (This in a district Mitt Romney won by 24 points in 2012.)
Similarly, Trump got less than 50 percent of the vote in Costello's and Meehan's districts last year, but each of the congressmen racked up around 60 percent (while also facing weak opposition).
Democrats had hoped to make a statement in Georgia, signaling that they could win on red turf with the kind of educated, affluent voters who have been more skeptical of Trump — a demographic similar to that in Costello's district.
Instead, this morning Democrats are finger-pointing and facing sharp questions about whether they need a change in leadership. Republicans used House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — and the prospect of her rising again to speaker — as a bludgeon against the Democratic candidate in Georgia, Jon Ossoff.
Some Democrats point out that they managed to come close in long-time Republican territory where the GOP has usually won by massive margins, arguing that the results still bode well for races in more moderate areas, like the districts outside Philadelphia.
But Republicans there are already employing the same tactics that worked for Handel during the race: Avoid getting too close to Trump, and focus on Pelosi.
Costello, Meehan, and Brian Fitzpatrick of Bucks County have all worked to create identities distinct from the president, voted against the final version of the GOP health-care bill, and criticized Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Democrats have pushed hard to tie them to the president, blasting them, for example, for their recent support of a bill to roll back banking regulations. But simply attacking Trump doesn't appear to be enough to win.
Of course, before the results came in Tuesday and the spin began, analysts and operatives from both parties cautioned against reading too much into one special election in Georgia more than a year before the next round of congressional votes.
"We'll take a look and see what the intensity is on both sides, and it'll tell us a little about where the president's base is, but I'm not going to draw too many conclusions when there was tens of millions of outside money spent," said Pennsylvania's GOP Chairman Val DiGiorgio.
The Bucks County Democratic chair, John Cordisco, said local elections this fall would be a better predictor of the energy in Pennsylvania.
And Costello, Meehan, and Fitzpatrick still face tough challenges. Their districts lean right, but are much more evenly balanced than the Georgia Sixth.
The president's approval rating, around 40 percent nationally in most polls, is still worrisome for the GOP, and Democratic energy is high — even in their losses, their candidates have outperformed statistical expectations in all four special elections this year, according to the Cook Political Report's David Wasserman.
History also shows that special elections often fail to foreshadow future results. Democrats won a string of special elections early in former President Barack Obama's first term, but still got wiped out in the 2010 midterm elections.
Democrats are still hoping for a similar wave next year. But as it stands this morning, they're searching for a path to victory, while Republicans have actual results.