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In Georgia, close isn't nearly good enough for Democrats

(CNN) Winning isn't everything in politics. It's the only thing.

And on Tuesday night, Democrats came up short in the single-most winnable special election of 2017: The suburban Atlanta 6th District of Georgia.

CNN called the race for Republican Karen Handel shortly after 10 p.m. ET, with her holding a lead of more than 10,000 votes over Democrat Jon Ossoff.

The race, which was to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in a seat Donald Trump carried by just a single point in 2016, was the most expensive in history -- as both candidates, national parties and their associated super PACs dumped tens of millions into a seat widely seen as a barometer of the national mood. The final price tag on the race soared to north of $55 million.

Both candidates' messages were entirely nationalized as well. Ossoff sought to cast Handel, who had served as secretary of state in Georgia and run unsuccessfully for governor and Senate in recent years, as a tool of Trump. Handel similarly sought to link Ossoff to Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

Although Ossoff was heavily funded by liberal donors outside the state, he never cast himself as a progressive warrior -- instead putting himself in the mold of a centrist problem solver.

That was enough to get him 48% in the state's "jungle primary" in May in which all of the candidates from both parties ran on a single ballot. But it was not enough to push him over the top in a one-on-one race with a largely inoffensive Republican in Handel.

While the race will be heavily analyzed for national repercussions and lessons -- and it should be, given how much money and message-testing both national parties did -- this was also, in part, a local race. Handel was a known -- if not beloved or maybe just be-liked -- figure in the district thanks to her time in statewide office and her repeated unsuccessful runs for other offices.

Ossoff was a newcomer who didn't live in the district he was hoping to represent -- a fact Handel and national Republicans made much of. (Nota bene: You don't have to live in the congressional district you represent; you only have to live in the same state.) Neither was a very good candidate; Ossoff was stiff and robotic on the trail while Handel struggled to win over voters that, ideologically, should have been hers from the start.

The national implications, however, will dominate the story coming out of this race.

Special elections -- given their usually odd timing -- are almost always a battle of base intensity between the two parties. The people who turn out to vote in a June 20 special election runoff -- two months(!) after the initial vote -- are hardcore partisans. The game in special elections, then, is not persuading voters who aren't sure about their views. It's ensuring that the base is fired up and turns out.

Everyone knew the Democratic base was ginned up beyond belief at the chance to send Trump a message about his performance in the first 150 days of his administration. The big question mark was whether the GOP base -- perhaps worn down by Trump's seemingly never-ending series of self-inflicted wounds -- would be equally as intense.

It turns out that they were motivated -- as has been the case since at least 2010 -- by the idea of Ossoff as nothing more than a Pelosi henchman. Republican strategists successfully convinced GOP voters that a vote for Ossoff was a vote for values anathema to their own.

National Democrats will tell you that the race should have never been this close -- and that Ossoff even threatening Handel suggests big trouble for Republicans on the ballot next November.

But deep down they know they needed -- and still need -- a win in a high-profile race in which the fight was between Trump/Republicans and Pelosi/Democrats. Along with Archie Parnell's loss Tuesday night in a South Carolina special House election, Democrats have now lost four straight specials this year where at least some within the party saw the chance for an upset. (Kansas' 4th District and Montana's at-large seat are the other two.)

There are no moral victories in politics. No matter what the losing side says -- and they always say this -- the only thing that really matters when it comes to special elections is the "W" and the "L."

Had Ossoff won, he would have become an immediate national sensation for Democrats -- proof positive that the Trump agenda was being rejected even in Republican-leaning seats in the south. Donations to the Democratic House and Senate campaign committees would have soared. Democratic candidates on the fence about whether or not to run in 2018 would have taken the Ossoff victory as a sign that the national environment was beginning to tilt heavily in their side's favor.

Now none of that will happen. Sure, it is still possible for Democrats to retake the House in 2018. As the May 2010 special election in Pennsylvania's 12th District proved, a single race is not necessarily all that predictive. Democrats won that hotly-contested special only to go on and lose 63 seats -- and the majority -- less than six months later.

But as important as what Democrats won't get is what Republicans avoid: The full-scale panic that would have been triggered by a Handel loss. Had she come up short, any Republican incumbent in an even marginally competitive House seat would have immediately been on the phone to House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Steve Stivers of Ohio fretting over how Trump was going to cost them their jobs.

Those worries will disappear -- at least for the moment -- with Handel's victory.

So yes, this is one race. And history suggests there's just as good a chance that it means nothing as there is that it tells us everything we need to know about Trump and the 2018 election.

But Democrats are depressed and Republicans are rejoicing. And that tells you exactly why Georgia matters.