Silver Lining Or Messaging Fail? Georgia Special Election Defeat Divides Dems

David Goldman/AP

Democrats were doing some soul-searching Wednesday as to the party’s next steps going into 2018, after a months-long slog of an attempt to turn the ruby-red Georgia Sixth Congressional District blue ended in Republican Karen Handel’s decisive victory over Jon Ossoff.

Handel bested Ossoff by just under four points, after polls of the race’s final weeks showed the two candidates in a tight race. So in the hours since Handel secured a seat in Congress, some national Democrats have found a silver lining there, arguing that the fact that the race was competitive shows the party has a chance to make real gains in the 2018 midterms. But others on the party’s left flank argued that despite the relatively strong performance of Democratic candidates in this year’s special elections, the party needs to put forth a much stronger message going into the midterms.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ campaign arm, sent out an internal memo on Wednesday morning rallying the troops and insisting that Democrats have a shot at taking back the House next year.

“Last night’s results in Georgia were disappointing – we wanted to win and left everything on the field. Despite the loss, we have a lot to be proud of. The margin was close in this deep red district, and Jon Ossoff pushed the race to the limit in both the primary and runoff by impressively mobilizing the base and persuading independents and moderate Republicans,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), the chair of the DCCC, wrote in the memo. “We will carry those key lessons forward in order to compete in districts as Republican-leaning as Georgia, and in the dozens and dozens of districts on our battlefield that are much more competitive.”

Luján acknowledged that reclaiming a majority in the House would be an incredibly tough fight, but he argued that “the national environment and historical trends are key indicators as well, and there’s no doubt that the momentum is on our side.” He predicted that Trump’s low approval ratings will benefit Democrats going forward.

Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist who has worked for several Georgia lawmakers, said Tuesday night’s election results were still a positive sign for Democrats going forward.

“We always knew this was going to be an uphill battle, so even though last night’s result was disappointing, it wasn’t heartbreaking,” Johnson said in a statement to TPM. “Democrats spent a lot of money in this race, but Republicans spent nearly as much to defend a ruby-red district. Keep in mind that all of these special elections so far have been for some of the most hardcore conservatives who were handpicked to serve Trump.”

“I’m not claiming a moral victory here – when it comes to making a change, all I care about are electoral victories,” he continued. “But if we can take districts that Republicans have historically carried by 15-20 points and come within 3-5 points, then I feel very confident about taking dozens of districts that the GOP carry by single digits in the midterms.”

Jesse Ferguson, a former DCCC operative and Hillary Clinton campaign aide, told TPM that Democrats’ overall performance in the 2017 special elections has shown they have a chance in the 2018 midterms.

“If Democrats over perform in 2018 by as much as Ossoff overperformed last night, Democrats take the House,” Ferguson said. “There are more than enough Republican held seats that would flip to Democrats if we did that well next fall.”

Ferguson said that Democrats need to push harder to link Republicans to President Donald Trump going forward.

“I think there’s more we can do to tie Republicans to Trump and make the debate about them,” he told TPM.

But asked if Ossoff should have done more to tie Handel to Trump, Ferguson replied, “I don’t think there is too much you can do to make that tie clear to voters.”

Particularly since he advanced to the runoff election in April, Ossoff shied away from talking about Trump as he honed a more moderate image. While he made it clear that he was not a big fan of Trump, he rarely mentioned the President’s name on the campaign trail and repeatedly pointed out that he would work with anyone if elected to Congress.

Ossoff did champion some liberal causes, arguing that the country needs to address climate change and criticizing Handel for her role in the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood. But he portrayed himself as a moderate, talking about wasteful spending and creating tech jobs, in an apparent attempt to appeal to Republican voters who were uneasy about Trump.

While some Democratic operatives played up the silver lining they saw in Ossoff’s loss, members of the party’s progressive wing said that candidates needed to strengthen the party’s message going forward.

Matt Blizek, the election mobilization director at MoveOn.org, noted that Ossoff and other Democratic candidates have over-performed and said that their races show that “progressives and the Democratic base is obviously really fired up.”

But he also said that Democrats need to promote a “bold, progressive vision” and that Ossoff “missed an opportunity to do that.”

“It was just not clear what Jon Ossoff stood for,” he told TPM.

Two Democratic lawmakers argued that Democrats needed to promote their own solutions for the country, rather than focus on Trump and the 2016 election.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said Wednesday morning that Democrats needed to hone their economic message in particular.

“Democrats have to be hyperfocused on an economic message that tells people that the Republican Party is all about economic growth for millionaires and billionaires and the Democratic Party is about economic growth for everybody,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “The fact that we have spent so much time talking about Russia, you know, has been a distraction from what should be the clear contrast between Democrats and the Trump agenda, which is on economics.”

Asked if Democrats should fine tune an economic message going forward, Ferguson told TPM that Democrats need to work on “offering a better alternative” to Trump’s agenda when campaigning. He said it’s clear that many Americans are unhappy with Trump’s agenda but “don’t yet have enough confidence in the Democratic alternative.”

It’s not just Democratic operatives that are projecting a certain optimism about the party’s chances in 2018 after Ossoff’s loss, however. Political analysts agree that Ossoff’s defeat Tuesday night doesn’t necessarily spell doom-and-gloom for Democrats.

Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman wrote that Tuesday night’s “results were far from a disaster for Democrats, and Republicans shouldn’t be tempted to believe their House majority is safe.” He noted that in the four special elections that have taken place since Trump took office, given the partisan make-up of those areas, Democratic candidates outperformed in all of them.

“That’s an enthusiasm gap that big enough to gravely imperil the Republican majority next November—even if it didn’t show up in ‘the special election to end all special elections,” Wasserman wrote.

Kyle Kondik, a House expert at the University of Virginia, also told TPM in an email that Democrats outperformed in this year’s special elections and noted that Trump’s approval ratings should worry Republicans going into 2018.

“Democrats are generally running ahead of Clinton’s margins in U.S. House and state legislative special elections, even though they did not in GA-6,” Kondik wrote. “With a president at 40% approval, the party that doesn’t hold the White House should, historically, have a shot at making big gains in the House, and last night’s results don’t change that.”

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