by Gabriel Debenedetti · April 19, 2017
Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff failed to avoid a runoff election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district. | Getty
For all the roiling anger and energy at the grassroots, the party still fell short in Georgia and Kansas. And Democratic prospects in upcoming elections aren’t promising.
As it became clear late Tuesday evening that Jon Ossoff would fall just short of the 50-percent mark in the first round of voting in a suburban Atlanta special election, Democrats back in Washington started leafing through their calendars and asking: When does the winning start?
Ossoff’s moral victory — capturing 48 percent of the vote in a conservative-oriented district — was welcome, but after two successive close-but-no-cigar finishes in House special elections in Georgia and Kansas, a new worry is beginning to set in.
For all the anger, energy, and money swirling at the grassroots level, Democrats didn’t manage to pick off the first two Republican-held congressional seats they contended for in the Trump era, and the prospects aren’t markedly better in the next few House races coming up: the Montana race at the end of May, and the South Carolina contest on June 20.
Their best shot at knocking Donald Trump down a peg appears to be Ossoff’s runoff against Republican Karen Handel, also scheduled for June 20. But the Democrat will be an underdog in that contest, when there won’t be a crowded field of Republicans to splinter the vote.
After that, it’ll be another five months before the New Jersey and Virginia elections for governor, leaving some strategists and lawmakers wondering how to keep the furious rank-and-file voters engaged in fueling and funding the party’s comeback — especially given the sky-high expectations that surrounded Ossoff’s ultimately unsuccessful run at the 50-percent threshold that was necessary to win the seat outright.
“The resistance has it right: they are fighting mad, but they find joy in the fight. And so it’s not that anybody should be expected to gloss over the challenges that we have, or be Pollyanna about our situation as a country or as a party,” said Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, decrying some of the party’s messaging describing the prospect of an Ossoff loss as devastating. “It’s just that there has to be a sense of momentum that builds over time and that requires that we define our objectives tightly — and that we are prepared to lose more than we win for the time being, but that we understand that we have the vast majority of the American people on our side, and history on our side.”
Democrats have posted a few successes in the opening months of the Trump era. They’ve slowed the new president’s agenda and overperformed in a slew of low-profile state legislative races. By any measure, Ossoff’s strong performance in Georgia and the 20-point swing toward the Democratic nominee in last week’s Kansas special election are impressive accomplishments given the conservative orientation of those districts. But they still fall under the category of loss mitigation, not concrete victories against a president the party loathes.
Now, with Ossoff falling short of an outright win despite an unprecedented surge of campaign cash and national attention — in a district which Hillary Clinton lost by just one point in 2016 — comes the potential for another round of finger-pointing within the party. The worry: that if operatives and voters continue their practice of quietly blaming each other for losses, as they did after a narrow defeat outside of Wichita last week, the current level of runaway enthusiasm and budding trust in the national party leadership could sputter out long before the 2018 midterms.
“Whatever happens over the next few weeks, it’s critical that rank-and-file Democrats feel like the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] left it all on the playing field,” said longtime party strategist Simon Rosenberg, president of the NDN think tank.
After attorney James Thompson came within seven points of winning the race for CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s old seat in Kansas last week, some leading progressive voices, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, were quick to blame national Democrats for not spending enough time and energy to help Thompson. Since then, DCCC and Democratic National Committee officials have been sure to detail the work they’ve done for the party ahead of Ossoff’s race.
With the approach of a Montana contest that will see national resources poured in while political celebrities like Sanders descend on the state to support candidate Rob Quist, the question Democrats are asking themselves is whether it will be enough — and how to keep the grassroots fires stoked as Trump’s administration passes its first 100 days mark. Trump won Montana by 21 points, after all, and the race in Georgia to replace HHS Secretary Tom Price illustrated that a combination of Republican infighting, the Trump factor and an avalanche of campaign cash still isn’t enough to guarantee Democratic success.
The South Carolina race to replace Budget Director Mick Mulvaney will take place under similarly difficult conditions — in a district Trump won by 18 points, and in a state where he won by 14.
One way to avoid a letdown, some Democrats say, is to train the focus on legislative fights where Democrats have slowed the White House, from its travel ban to the attempt to repeal Obamacare. Party operatives figure pushes like that might be enough to keep the base energized as opportunities to push back on individual policies surface.
“People are responding to Trump, and as long as Trump is in office they will continue to respond,” said Democratic pollster Margie Omero. “There are plenty of other avenues for engagement. Constant meetings and groups popping up all over the country. You have corporate motivated efforts that people are taking to make sure that companies they support have political views that line up with their own. You have the groundswell of activism against [Neil] Gorsuch, and then you have the protests like the tax protest or the climate ones coming down the pike. So there’s lots of opportunity for opposing the president. [Yes,] as long there’s voting people are going to be paying a lot of attention to it. But it goes beyond that.”
The fact that Democrats have picked themselves up off the ground since Election Day to mount a resistance at all creates a positive feedback loop, they believe — pointing to local legislative races as evidence of an optimistic trend.
“The biggest driver of enthusiasm right now is the rejection of Trump and the Trump agenda,” said party strategist Jesse Ferguson, a former top official at the party’s House campaign wing. “There have been far more successes in resisting the Trump administration than anyone would have expected on November 10, whether it’s beating back the health care repeal or some of these special elections in state legislatures, or closer-than-expected congressional races.”
With the political map glaringly free of obvious near-term win opportunities, Schatz believes the party’s messaging needs some refining. In his view, that means officials at the DCCC should cut the doom-and-gloom messaging in their fundraising emails — a significant way the party communicates with backers.
“I don’t mind the occasional call to action that is based on a negative emotion, it’s the declaring final defeat at the start of the third quarter that bugs me. ‘All is lost’ is a preposterous thing to say to a voter or a donor, and to use words like ‘crushing’ is a total misunderstanding of how to motivate people,” he said on Tuesday, just hours before the DCCC sent out a Nancy Pelosi-signed note with the subject line “crushing loss.”
“The point to be made here is this is Tom Price’s seat,” he added. “One of the most conservative people in the United States House. And when he vacated his seat nobody thought it was going to be a problem for national Republicans and competitive for us. So if we can keep up this competitiveness, it’s going to be a really interesting year in 2018. But if we define our success as winning in Kansas, Montana, and Georgia, we’re setting ourselves up for potential disappointment.”