ATLANTA — In the wake of a disappointing loss in the race to fill a suburban Atlanta congressional seat, Democrats began apportioning blame and assessing the defeat Wednesday, trying to make sense of their painful setback in the most expensive House race in history.
"There are definitely some real lessons to be taken from this: Democrats are going to have to do better and improve on things a lot in order to take advantage of the opportunity presented by 2018," said Matt Blizek, the election mobilization director at liberal group MoveOn.org. "It doesn’t matter how much money you have if it’s not clear to people what you stand for, and if what you stand for isn’t change."
Democrat Jon Ossoff’s defeat in Georgia was one of four losses in special elections this year, leading some quarters of the party to focus their ire toward the party’s House campaign wing.
But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee doesn’t believe it erred in the Georgia race between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Karen Handell, or in its spending decisions in the surprisingly competitive South Carolina special election that also took place Tuesday. After all, each of those districts — like those in Kansas and Montana special elections earlier this year — swung aggressively toward Democrats, and the group has been testing messages and tactics for 2018 within those races.
In a memo to staff and lawmakers on Wednesday, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Ben Ray Lujan even declared for the first time that the House is in play.
But the morning was otherwise marked by finger-pointing reflecting some of the biggest divisions in the party — including some that have been festering since the 2016 presidential primary. To many progressives, Ossoff’s loss was a symptom of the party’s insistence on running moderate candidates who try to appeal too much to Republicans who dislike Trump.
"So far this cycle, we’ve seen an underfunded, authentic candidate with a message lose and we’ve seen a well-funded candidate with D.C. talking points lose. Now it’s time to focus on putting real resources behind candidates who can inspire progressives and give folks a clear vision for the future," said longtime Democratic strategist Rebecca Katz, referring respectively to Rob Quist in Montana and Ossoff. "Democrats have to stop focusing all our energy on winning over Romney voters and start figuring out how to bring more progressive independents into the fold."
Ossoff’s closing message in a district that routinely goes for GOP candidates by at least 20 points was largely about fiscal responsibility, rather than opposition to Trump or the offer of a broad economic plan. That kind of message is anathema to many liberal lawmakers and strategists.
“We need a bolder economic platform, our party needs to be for good jobs and better wages, [and] we have to have some bold economic ideas that are going to convince people that we get it,” said Rep. Ro Khanna of California. “There’s still a ways to go. The challenge is not simply a messaging issue or a branding issue, the challenge is a vision issue.”
Still more Wednesday dissatisfaction was focused on tactics.
Ossoff stopped attacking Trump after the national party’s focus groups in his district revealed that Democratic criticisms of the president didn’t sit well with the locals. But the lack of anti-Trump messaging rubbed many campaign professionals the wrong way, since his unpopularity is the reason seat was up for grabs in the first place.
Similar frustration simmered over the lack of focus on the GOP plan to replace Obamacare — a major Democratic talking point nationwide, but hardly a central issue in the Georgia contest.
A different kind of disgruntlement settled over the result of Tuesday’s race to replace now-Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in South Carolina. Democrat Archie Parnell finished just 3 points behind Republican Ralph Norman — a far closer result than anticipated, and one that left operatives across the party wondering why so much attention was paid to Georgia’s race instead of that one.
Party officials from South Carolina, including the incoming and outgoing state chairmen, were joined by members of the Congressional Black Caucus in urging the DCCC to send even more support to Parnell than it already did over the final weeks, but that committee was one of the few groups to send Parnell any help at all. Meanwhile, Ossoff and outside Democratic groups ended up spending an eye-popping $33 million in Georgia.
“When you think about what actually happened, Georgia is an anomaly — you spend $50 or $60 million on a race? Most of these races and efforts to take back the House are going to look like the South Carolina race, with $2 to $3 million on the race,” said Democratic National Committee Associate Chair Jaime Harrison, a former South Carolina party chairman and one of the Democrats who personally urged the DCCC to step up in Parnell’s race. “The path for us to win goes through the South: those are the seats we lost in 2010, and those are the types of races we need to win.”
Now, with the accusations flying, campaign operatives are left wondering whether anti-Trump sentiment is enough to keep Democratic voters engaged until the next elections in 2018, particularly since only one race — for Virginia governor — is likely to be competitive between now and then.
Their hope is that the immediate Georgia blowback will lead to valuable insights, and the outcome of the race itself is no harbinger of the shape of 2018 landscape.
“Special election results are getting to be like exit polls,” said Matt Bennett of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, hoping that’s the case. “They get people very excited, but they don’t mean anything."