Clues from Georgia on Democrats' future

Democratic darling Jon Ossoff lost in the most expensive House race in history. Republicans have won all the special House races so far this spring, but by narrower margins than usual.

David Goldman/AP
Matthew Levy comforts his wife, Sheila Levy, after the Democratic candidate for the 6th Congressional district, Jon Ossoff, conceded to Republican Karen Handel at his election night party in Atlanta on June 20.

This was the special House race Democrats thought they could win. Money flooded in from around the country, and platoons of young activists worked the phones and knocked on doors. But the effort to turn a solid-red district blue still fell short.

Clearly, anti-Trump energy alone isn’t enough to beat Republicans not named Trump.

Not that Jon Ossoff, the Democrats’ young, first-time candidate for an open House seat near Atlanta, was relying just on anti-Trump feeling to defeat his Republican opponent June 20. In fact, Mr. Ossoff did not aggressively bash President Trump. He opted for civility, to the chagrin of some Democratic activists.

Ossoff espoused other values that seemed tailored to Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, in affluent suburban Atlanta. His message focused on business development, fighting corruption, and ending partisan gridlock in Washington.

He went hard after his opponent, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, for her effort to defund Planned Parenthood but trod lightly on Trump’s bid to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Democratic strategist David Mermin says he has no problem with how Ossoff ran his race, which was tailored to win the support of loosely affiliated Republicans and independents, as well as Democrats.

“Democrats won’t win the House by running the same cookie-cutter campaign in every district,” says Mr. Mermin, a native of suburban Atlanta who is now a partner at Lake Research in San Francisco. “They have to connect with the people, they have to focus on their priorities, and those are going to be different in a blue-collar manufacturing district in Ohio than they are in a highly educated, suburban district in Georgia or California.”

The Trump factor

In addition, while some cast this race as a gauge of displeasure with the president’s performance so far, the Trump factor shouldn’t be overplayed.

“This race was not a pure referendum on Donald Trump,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. With a record $55 million spent on the race, “the candidates were well-known. They were being judged partly on their own.”

That’s not to say Trump wasn’t a factor in Tuesday’s vote. Districts like Georgia’s Sixth have been trending away from their solidly Republican identity for a while – an evolution that has accelerated since the rise of Trump.

“That’s why [the Sixth District] was in play,” says Mermin.

Some are moderate Republicans or independents who would vote for a more mainstream Republican, “but are not very happy with the president and what they’re seeing,” he says. “They may have wanted to send a message.”

Indeed, Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Georgia’s Sixth District by only 1.5 percentage points, even as then-Rep. Tom Price (R) was winning reelection by 23 points. Mr. Price is now secretary of Health and Human Services.

Democrats narrow gap with GOP

Republicans have won all the special House races so far this spring – in Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, and Georgia – but all by narrower margins than usual. The South Carolina race, also June 20, ended up even closer than the Georgia race, with the Republican winning by just 3 points. Ms. Handel won the Georgia race by 3.8 points.

But analysts reject the idea that a Democratic investment in the South Carolina race could have brought victory. It was precisely because all the focus was on Georgia that South Carolina flew below the radar, and did not inspire high turnout by Republicans.

Democrats, nevertheless, are taking some comfort that they cut into GOP margins of victory.

Looking ahead to 2018 House race

Republicans successfully tied Ossoff to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and her “San Francisco values,” suggesting a formula that could work for the GOP in the November 2018 midterms.

But for now, it’s too soon to make predictions about the 2018 mid-term elections, when Democrats hope to retake the House and curb Trump’s power on Capitol Hill. But history weighs heavily in favor of big Democratic gains, and Republicans are not resting easy. Democrats need a net gain of only 24 House seats to win the majority.

In 1994, 2006, and 2010 – the last three midterms in which the same party controlled both the White House and the House of Representatives – the ruling party suffered devastating losses.

None of the House districts that have held special elections this year are crucial to Democrats’ takeover dreams, including the seat just filled in Georgia. According to the Cook Political Report’s “partisan voting index,” there are 71 Republican-held districts that are more Democratic than Georgia’s Sixth District. Democrats need only about one-third of those 71 districts to retake the House.

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