Democrats Flunk Politics 101: It’s All Local

Hot takes in the wake of the elections results in Georgia’s 6th district came in faster than a short-order cook slinging hash at a Waffle House. Both sides of the political divide are eager to lock in their conventional wisdom about some deeper meaning to the night’s results, and both sides seem to be wildly over-interpreting the outcome.

Special elections are notoriously bad as predictive measures, but in an age of deeply divided partisan warfare, no one on either side is going to listen to reason and focus on the fact that sometimes an election is about the campaigns and candidates. It may seem ironic coming from me, this race wasn’t as much as about Trump as either side wanted it to be. Democrats wanted the race to be a referendum on Trump. Republicans wanted the outcome to be a referendum on Trump.

To win, Democrats need to do more than just #resist in conservative Republican districts, especially in places like Georgia’s 6th. Republicans who think their Trump troubles are in the rearview mirror because they spent millions sweating out a seat they should have won without lifting a finger or spending a dime are playing “this is fine” in a way that may bite them in 2018.

There’s a reason the GOP took over 1,000 seats from Democrats at the Federal, state and local level under President Obama, and despite their belief that my side wins merely from “voter suppression” or gerrymandering, it’s one they really need to work on. As I’ve noted before, most Democrats lack the holistic campaign skill set they needed to win in districts that aren’t deep blue. They’re great at some parts of campaigns — they raised a metric crap-ton of money in this race, to be sure — but unless the candidate fits the district and the values of its residents, it’s a hell of a lot harder to close the sale.

The 6th District, despite massive dropoff in the 2016 Presidential election from its usual mean, has a Cook PVI score of R+10. The 6th is educated, suburban, and conservative, with an emphasis on the last. In this race, as is so frequently true, the central failure mode for Democrats was candidate recruitment.

Their base is utterly intolerant of candidates who don’t check every single ideological box on the liberal wish list, including positions that are poison in red districts. Ossoff was conventionally liberal on abortion, gun control and the usual constellation of red-seat vote repellent. His ideological fit may have pleased the Democratic national donor base, but it wasn’t the flavor the 6th was looking for. This was a district that gave Mitt Romney a 23 percentage point win. It’s not liberal, you can’t wishcast it into being liberal, and Jon Ossoff scanned as… wait for it… a liberal.

He wasn’t a skilled candidate. He might become one someday, but he’s not there yet. Gangly, young, and weirdly diffident, Ossoff may have been all the Democrats had, but it simply wasn’t enough. He never seemed truly comfortable in his skin on television. His resume was flimsy, and after spending millions and millions of dollars on television ads, you’d think the Democrats would have at least gotten Jon an apartment in the 6th District. The issue of his residency was an embarrassing failure that would have cost them less than $5,000 to rectify. (Full disclosure; in my career I have done this for candidates. No, I’m not naming names.)

Imagine for a moment a world where Ossoff stood by his liberal principles, but also said, “I’m not going to Washington to work for Nancy Pelosi. She’s wrong on X, Y, and Z and we will respectfully disagree. I’m going to Washington to fight for the people of the 6th District and take care of the local problems we face.” His messaging in the end was the generic “I’ll work with anyone from either party who has good ideas” and that doesn’t cut it with a trillion points of TV framing him as a Pelosi acolyte and errand boy.

Name recognition, tribal smell, and motor learning all matter. Jon Ossoff was a newcomer who failed to define himself before it was done to him. It was harder to transform suburban Republican Handel, a known quality, into the concubine of Donald Trump. She may be more conservative than Democrats liked, but she was an ideological Goldilocks for the district.

Money matters and everything counts in large amounts, but the sense I gained from talking to folks who live in the 6th was that Ossoff’s people were throwing everything at the wall and hoping it would stick. They were knocking on the wrong doors, calling the wrong phones, and although it’s anathema for me to say this, running too damn much TV.

The media campaign reached a point where the marginal utility of more spending diminished to zero. The Handel campaign and its GOP allies spent heavily as well, and while the ROI of the Democratic campaign fell short, the high cost of defending a safe seat here is something my party can’t replicate at scale. Regardless of the locked-in-stone “this means X about 2018” takes and the absurd bonfire of campaign cash both sides spent, this race came down to the usual fundamentals; candidate quality, ideological fit, and campaign mechanics.

They almost always do.