Pretty close to exactly 12 years ago, I took the reins of the political operation of the Florida House Democratic Caucus. During my three years there, we picked up nine Republican districts, including two swing seat Special Elections, including a special in a ruby-red type district like Georgia 06.
We made the decision to play in this race for one after passing on a few other specials. Why? We had exactly the right candidate — and we had exactly the right GOP opponent.
It was in late 2007, and GOP State Representative Bob Allen had just resigned, the details of which I will leave to The Google. His district, in Brevard County, wasn’t exactly home team territory, but like GA 06, had one or two markers that at least piqued my attention.
The Republicans had a four-way primary, and in the process nominated arguably the worst possible candidate. one the Orlando Sentinel called “woefully unprepared” who “lacks even the basic knowledge of how Florida’s tax structure or its school system works.”
Needless to say, that ad wrote itself.
On the other side, we had basically the unicorn candidate, a well-regarded City Commissioner from the district’s population center, Tony Sasso. Sasso was a pure progressive on environmental issues, which gave him base bona fides, but was libertarian on enough issues to win over some right-leaning swing voters, and reasonable enough as a Commissioner to give moderate voters comfort. He was a well-liked known commodity.
Even with this perfect storm — the perfect candidate on our side, the perfect opponent, and the perfect setup for the race (again, you can Google it), we had to claw our way to a very narrow win.
For those of you who know me well, you know my basic political sandbox: Candidates matter. There were probably 25,000 other Democrats in that state House seat that would have lost, and with all respect to my friend Tony, we probably would have lost had the GOP just nominated a decent candidate.
So, what does this have to do with GA 06?
Keep in mind, over 70 Republicans in Congress come from seats better than this one, meaning GA 06 is the kind of place where everything has to be perfect. In fact, there is only one Democratic Member of Congress in a seat more Republican than Georgia 06, and not a single Republican in one similar for the other side.
For Florida readers, here are two markers: At R+8, GA 06 is more Republican than Dennis Ross and Mike Bilirakis‘ district, and more Republican than Ted Deutch‘s seat is Democratic. In terms of partisan voting, it is about equally partisan as Debbie Wasserman Schultz‘s seat. In other words, to win, literally everything has to be perfect — and even then, it’s often not enough.
And it wasn’t.
Taking nothing away from the campaign — I knew a lot of really smart people who did good work, and for the good of the cause, I think the party had to make some kind of an effort there (30 million was well beyond the point of diminishing returns), the basic matchup was uphill. Jon Ossoff, while an impressive young man, started out hardly more than a generic Democrat. The first time I spoke to one of my very smart Atlanta friends about Ossoff, she peppered her praise with a fair number of “but” to describe his weaknesses. Back when I was a candidate recruiter, I went out of my way to walk away from candidates whose qualities had to be modified by the word “but,” especially in seats like this.
Karen Handel, on paper, was a proven commodity. Take ideology and everything else off the test, and she wins the bio test. I don’t know if a more proven candidate, either some kind of prominent business leader, or prior elected, would have done better, but my gut says the odds are pretty decent. I was definitely in the camp that our best shot here was in the big primary.
Even in districts like this, the road to 45-47 percent, with enough money and a good enough candidate, can be smooth. But the road from there to 50+1 can be like climbing Everest without oxygen — sure it can be done, but it requires a really amazing climber and a fair amount of luck. Gwen Graham getting over the top in Florida 02 in 2014 (R+5 seat) when several others had come just short is a good example of this.
I don’t think Democrats should get too down on this one, or Republicans get too excited. Districts like this show that the map in 2018 is likely to be fairly broad. Take away the money spent in the seat, and I think most Dems would rightfully feel very good about it. As we saw in South Carolina tonight, there are a lot of places that are more interesting than they normally are.
Which gets back to the lesson. One of the biggest forgotten lessons of 2006 is the importance of recruitment. My side will never have the money to go toe-to-toe with Republicans everywhere. We have to have the “better” candidate in a lot of places to win, particularly due to gerrymandering that means we have to win more seats on GOP turf than they do on ours. At the Congressional level, the DCCC in 2006 fielded a rock-star slate of candidates. At the legislative cycle, in a year when we picked up seven GOP-held seats and held two Democratic open seats, we had the “better” candidate in almost every instance. We also recruited broadly, trying to find the best candidates we could in as many plausible seats as possible, to compete broadly, to give ourselves lots of options — and when the wave happened, the map blew wide-open. Had we not put the work in on the recruitment side — occasionally in places where a Democratic candidate had already filed, at best we would have gone plus 2 or 3, even with the wave.
At the same time, if we had more money, our +7 year might have been +10 or more.
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 — especially somewhere like GA08. Even in this hyperpartisan environment, campaigns aren’t simply plug-and-play operations — they are choices.
When folks ask me what the national and state party should be doing, my answer is simple: Two things, recruit high-quality candidates and register voters.
And if Democrats expect to have success in November 2018, that is the work that must be done between now and then.