Joe Lockhart was White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton's administration. He co-hosts the podcast "Words Matter." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
(CNN)There are a few truisms about special elections: Both sides spend a lot of money, special elections are difficult for the party that holds the presidency as they are often a referendum on the job the president is doing, and finally, both parties will be aggressive with spin to explain a loss as not a loss and a victory as a major national trend event.
During North Carolina's special elections these truths were on full display. More than $20 million was spent on the congressional race, and President Donald Trump, understanding the second truth, made it clear that the election was about whether people supported him or the "America-hating left."
As for spin on a victory, Trump used Twitter to get the ball rolling on that. "BIG NIGHT FOR THE REPUBLICAN PARTY. CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL!," read one of several tweets.
What's not subject to spin, however, is that this is a Republican district. No Democrat has won this seat since 1962 and Trump won the district by 12 points. The district is also partly suburban, an area which has proved very problematic for Republicans under Trump.
So, let's dispense with spin and focus on what happened and why. First, a win is a win. Even if this should have not been close, Sen. Dan Bishop's victory is a victory for the GOP. Second, Trump proved he can motivate and turnout his base particularly in Cumberland County where he held a rally Monday evening.
As a side note, sometimes presidential visits backfire on the party in power by motivating their opponents to get to the polls. In this case, Democrats are already motivated so there is literally no downside for Trump to jump into these races.
Finally, Bishop was a better candidate than Republican Mark Harris who ran in 2018. The type of candidate always matters.
That's the good news for Republicans. Here's the bad news. This should not have been a competitive race. The tight result Tuesday night illustrates the problem facing Trump in 2020 -- suburban voters are abandoning him in droves.
And for the President, who won only by some 78,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, this foreshadows a very tough reelection effort.
Recent polls put the President at historically low levels of job approval and, for the first time, underwater in a poll on his handling of the economy. Given his razor thin margin in 2016, he just can't afford to have the suburban exodus of 2018 and tonight in North Carolina.
The Democratic success in 2018 was fueled by Independents, women and some Republicans in traditionally Republican suburban areas. If that trend continues, President Trump has an incredibly narrow path to reelection.