Donald Trump’s presidency has galvanized Democrats in a way their own leaders have been unable to do, a phenomenon that masked persistent party divisions. But four straight special election losses, culminating Tuesday in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, have again exposed those fracture lines and other flaws.
As Democrats pick up the pieces ahead of next year’s midterms, they’re largely in agreement that the party needs a sharper economic message and stronger candidates. But just what kind of message and what kind of candidates will deliver victories in the Trump era remain points of contention.
It took the most expensive House race in history to make clear that while resistance to the new president excites some Democrats, the voters needed to regain control of the lower chamber just weren’t ready to come aboard. Even if many rank-and-file Republicans harbor a distaste for Trump, it isn’t yet driving them to support a Democrat down ballot, particularly if they associate that candidate with Nancy Pelosi.
Even Democrats acknowledge that Republicans have effectively mobilized their voters by using the former House speaker as a proxy for liberal rule in Washington. That awareness has been palpable among younger lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who fear the party hasn’t absorbed any of the lessons from last year’s election.
“Our brand is toxic,” said Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who challenged Pelosi for the top leadership position earlier this year. Candidates like Jon Ossoff in Georgia and Archie Parnell, who lost an unexpectedly close election in South Carolina’s 5th District on Tuesday, “cannot carry the toxicity of the national Democrat brand,” Ryan said. “That’s just the bottom line.”
Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a former Marine and a rising party star, said the special elections should be a “wake-up call” for Democrats. “Business as usual isn’t working,” he tweeted. Later Wednesday, Moulton announced his support for eight veterans challenging Republicans in House races.
One case in point is Joe Cunningham, a young Democrat challenging South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford in 2018: He pledged Wednesday to not support Pelosi, who is the party’s most prolific fundraiser and a savvy operator on legislation. “The Democratic Party needs new leadership now,” he tweeted.
Democrats looking to rally the troops might point to candidates, including Cunningham, who are entering the fray despite uphill climbs in GOP-held districts. They point to Democrats overperforming their predecessors in each of the four special elections so far this year to argue that the Trump-era climate remains favorable.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan predicted Wednesday that his party would win back the House, arguing that there are over 70 districts that are more competitive for Democrats than the one in Georgia, even though party officials had pointed to the suburban Atlanta 6th as representative of the ones they need to win. Democrats also point to their own lessons learned in President Obama’s first midterm, when they lost control of the House a year after winning a key special election in upstate New York.
“We’ve seen a huge uptick in recruitment this cycle,” DCCC spokesman Tyler Law told RCP. “Incredible candidates are stepping up to run across the largest battlefield we’ve seen in a decade. Frankly, the battlefield and the enthusiasm on the ground are not at all tied to unrepresentative special elections.”
Still, Democrats had hoped that a win in Georgia might encourage other potential candidates to run for office next year, and also set in motion GOP retirements in competitive districts. In addition, they hoped an Ossoff victory would discourage Republicans from waging vigorous challenges to Democratic Senate incumbents.
But by Wednesday, Republicans were breathing an audible sigh of relief. That’s not say they are off the hook. GOP groups spent about $20 million on the Georgia race, compared to the Democrats’ roughly $30 million, in a district they have held for decades. National Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Stivers cautioned that there are still about 17 months until the midterms, when the president’s party typically loses seats.
“It’s a good start. There are still a lot of races we’ve got to win,” Stivers told reporters. Asked about having to spend record amounts of money to hold the seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, the chairman said the party “had to keep up.” Stivers noted that his committee has outraised its Democratic counterpart in four of the past five months. “We’re doing what we need to do,” he said, “and I’m working on a plan to rebuild the money that we spent now.”
In Georgia, Republicans painted Ossoff as a national Democrat, pointing to his out-of-state campaign donations, even from grassroots supporters, as a sign of support for a Pelosi-aligned liberal agenda. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with GOP House leadership, spent $7 million against Ossoff, portraying him as a rubber stamp for the minority leader.
While Democrats argue that Republicans would have tied Ossoff to any party bogeyman, the Pelosi connection seemed to carry particular sway with the voters they needed to attract.
Kelly Iacobelli, a Republican marketing professional from Cobb County, is the kind of voter Democrats are aiming to bring into their fold. She voted for Ossoff, though reluctantly, and said the ads tying him to the national party likely dissuaded others like her from crossing party lines. “Our area so distrusts her, and did not want Pelosi to have control,” she said. “I don’t think people see Pelosi as being any better than Trump.”
Iacobelli voted for Hillary Clinton as an alternative to Trump, but acknowledged that “it freaks me out that I voted Democrat.” She said the GOP has turned her off — not that the Democratic Party has lured her in. Iacobelli said she would be open to supporting other Democratic candidates, but wants them to be more independent and more compelling. Ossoff, she said, seemed too bland and lacked adequate experience.
“It doesn’t feel like the Democrats in Georgia really rose up, which I was hoping for,” she said. “It felt too rigged.”
While Democrats have been touting high-quality recruitment for the midterms — pointing to a surge in veterans interested in or actually running for office — the candidates in the special elections were found to be lacking. Some argue that national Democrats hadn’t expected most of the races to become competitive, and therefore didn’t raise the bar in candidate recruitment. In Montana, for example, progressive banjo player Rob Quist represented the party on the ballot.
“Ossoff clearly has a bright future, and would have won in a lot of places last night. But in many ways, his was a candidacy created from whole cloth, and funding and turnout operations alone won’t get just anyone across the line,” said Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale. “Even in this hyper-partisan environment, campaigns aren’t simply plug-and-play operations — they are choices.”
While the political environment would seem to be encouraging for Democrats, getting people to run for Congress is a challenge. “Especially in this day and age, when so much of it requires raising money and enduring negative attacks, you have to work hard to find the right people, but you also have to understand that the best person isn’t always willing to take the plunge,” says Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson.
“There are candidates who have stories and narratives and experiences and biographies that make them uniquely able to resonate,” he said. “Those are the people we need to be on the hunt for.”
With no special election victories to point to as a guide, though, Democrats are in conflict over what kind of candidate can be successful next year. And contrasts between party leaders and the base that were on display throughout the Democratic presidential primary still exist.
Progressive activists point to Ossoff as too moderate. “In the closing weeks of the race, Ossoff and the DCCC 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,” Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org, said in a statement. “Democrats will not win back power merely by serving as an alternative to Trump and Republicans.”
Some Democrats on Capitol Hill have argued that the party has gotten carried away with opposition to Trump. “Democrats have to be hyper-focused on an economic message,” Sen. Chris Murphy told MSNBC. “The fact that we have spent so much time talking about Russia has been a distraction from what should be a clear contrast between Democrats and the Trump agenda, which is on economics.”
Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee points to recent polling by his group that shows voters in red and purple states believe Trump stands on the side of working people while Democrats align with big money and special interests – a reversal of historical perceptions.
“In 2018 progressives want to prove the best way to win in red and purple districts is with a vibrant interest in challenges to special interests on behalf of the little guy,” Green told RCP. “It seems like a perfect year to have outsiders who inspire in an authentic way.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.