Democrats tried an inoffensive moderate message in Georgia. They ran a banjo-strumming populist in Montana. They called in the cavalry in South Carolina and tried to catch their foe sleeping through a long-shot in Kansas.
None of it worked.
In the special elections for House seats vacated by Republicans who wound up in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, Democrats went 0-for-4.
Now, party officials, strategists and candidates are pondering what went wrong — and how they can turn it around in time for the 2018 midterm elections.
Jon Ossoff’s loss Tuesday night in a hyper-competitive Georgia race — the most expensive in history — “better be a wake-up call for Democrats,” tweeted Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, an emerging Democratic leader.
“We need a genuinely new message, a serious jobs plan that reaches all Americans, and a bigger tent,” he wrote, “not a smaller one. Focus on the future.”
The losses aren’t all doom and gloom for Democrats. The party got closer than it has in decades to winning some of the four seats — a sign they’ve closed their gaps with Republicans in both suburban and rural areas and in 2018 will have a broad playing field with dozens of more competitive districts.
“We have to remember that these elections are being held in districts hand-picked by Trump — districts where he created vacancies because he thought they were ‘can’t lose’ seats,” said Ron Klain, a Democratic operative who was chief of staff to vice presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore.
Democrats also came closer than expected in South Carolina on Tuesday — which, Klain said, “shows there are no safe seats for Republicans and the Democrats have a broad array of districts to contest.”
But before the 2018 midterms, Democrats must grapple with the party’s need to drive its base to the polls while also convincing some independents and moderate Republicans to reject Trump.
“Democrats haven’t figured out how to beat Trump,” a senior Trump administration official said Tuesday night.
After scoring their latest victories, Republicans were spiking the football. Kellyanne Conway, a top White House aide, jabbed at Ossoff for being 30 years old and living just outside Georgia’s 6th District, tweeting her thanks to Republican Karen Handel “for standing strong, for running on issues, for being a grownup and for living in the district.”
In a memo, National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Matt Gorman said Democrats have a “competence problem” and said there were no moral victories to be had.
“Fawning press stories or bluster doesn’t win a single vote. There comes a time where a party must put up or shut up,” he said in the memo.
Democrats, meanwhile, were left licking their wounds.
“There are two ways to digest this result for Democrats — with our brains and with our guts,” said Tom Bonier, a top Democratic data and targeting guru.
Besting previous Democratic marks in each district that held a special election is a reason for optimism, he said. “But instinctually, this hurts, because it was about more than a single seat,” Bonier said.
“It was an opportunity to throw a wrench into Republican recruiting and fundraising efforts for 2018; to potentially set off a wave of retirements, creating easier to win open seats,” he said. “Logically, the difference of a few thousand votes in a single special election shouldn’t have such an impact. But these decisions aren’t always made based on logic alone.”
‘A tough loss’
Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, said in a statement that Georgia represented “a tough loss.”
“But Democrats cannot let this defeat tamper our enthusiasm. The fight to defeat President Trump’s and the Republican majority’s extreme agenda is more important than ever,” he said.
First, though, Democrats seem poised for a round of battles over which types of candidates they should run in competitive districts.
Progressive activist groups were sharply critical of Ossoff’s moderate campaign. In a strategic decision aimed at courting moderate Republicans who had supported Hillary Clinton in the fall, Ossoff rarely mentioned Trump’s name, and Democrats only hit Handel on the GOP’s health care effort late in the race.
“Gone are the days of Blue Dogs who actively campaign as Republicans,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Democracy for America chair Jim Dean blasted the Democratic establishment’s “unforced errors.”
‘A missed opportunity’
Anna Galland, the executive director of MoveOn.org, said Ossoff and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “missed an opportunity to make Republicans’ attack on health care the key issue, and instead attempted to portray Ossoff as a centrist, focusing on cutting spending and coming out in opposition to Medicare-for-all.”
Dan Pfeiffer, a long-time senior aide to former President Barack Obama, tweeted that Democrats need a “progressive populist candidate” focused on the economy and the GOP’s health care effort to win tough House races.
And while Democrats badly wanted a win, coming close four times should be enough to spook Republicans facing competitive re-election battles, said Zac Petkanas, who ran Hillary Clinton’s rapid response team.
“The fact that all these races were close should have any member of the GOP who won by less than 15 points absolutely terrified,” he said.
Democratic voters nationwide, Petkanas said, don’t know Ossoff. “They all know who Donald Trump is and this race proves he remains a major liability for Republicans that juices our turnout and depresses their support,” he said.
Ossoff was catapulted to progressive stardom — and turned into a fundraising phenom who hauled in $23 million — in large part due to early support from the liberal blog Daily Kos.
The blog’s founder, Markos Moulitsas, said in an email that the loss was “obviously disappointing.”
But, he said, in competing hard in places like Georgia’s 6th District, where former Rep. Tom Price never fell below 60%, Democrats have changed the expectations for the 2018 midterms.
“We’ve made it a point to fight Republicans every step of the way, make them earn every inch of territory they’ve gained. We’ve taken the fight deep into their territory, and forced them to fight desperately to hold seats that should easily be theirs. We’ve laid a marker on the ground — next year will be brutal for Republicans, because they won’t be able to spend tens of millions in every district,” Moulitsas said.
“We’re going to keep fighting them, keep harassing them, and keep expanding the map,” he said. “And in the end, we’ll know who really won and who lost November of 2018.”
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