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What The Democratic Loss in Georgia Means For The Midterms

Everyone wants to take credit for wins, and fingers get pointed in every direction for losses. But what can be read into a special election more than a year out from congressional elections?


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Jan Yanes (center) cries as  Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff concedes the special election for Georgia's 6th Congressional District Tuesday night.
Jan Yanes (center) cries as Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff concedes the special election for Georgia's 6th Congressional District Tuesday night. David Goldman | AP

Defeat is an orphan.

Summing up the left's response to its deflating loss in a special congressional election in the Atlanta suburbs were two reactions:

1. Jim Dean, chairman of the progressive activist group Democracy For America, in a statement:

"Defeating Republicans in districts that they have traditionally held requires doing something drastically different than establishment Democrats have done before — specifically, running on a bold progressive vision and investing heavily in direct voter contact to expand the electorate. That's what it will take to win districts like this one in 2018 and take back the House. The same, tired centrist Democratic playbook that has come up short cycle after cycle will not suffice."

And ...

2. Seth Moulton, a congressman from Massachusetts and former Iraq War veteran, who tweeted that the loss should be a "wake up call" for Democrats. He said the party needs to look to the future, have a "bigger tent" and a "serious jobs plan" and "stop rehashing 2016":

The Democratic divide is highlighted pretty starkly in the string of responses to Moulton's tweet.

Call it the Dean-Moulton Line of Demarcation: Be more progressive! Or — no, be more moderate where you need to be.

Special elections can be overinterpreted. Believe me — some of us thought a special election to replace a Democratic congressman in a white, working-class district in Pennsylvania was a good sign for the party in 2010. It turned out not to be, and Democrats were "shellacked," in President Obama's words, losing 63 seats and control of the House six months later.

But Democrats did this to themselves. They hyped a race that they were hoping would be a referendum on President Trump, and more money was spent on it — more than $50 million with outside groups factored in — than for any congressional race in history.

The party still doesn't know what it is or needs to be — and that can portend problems heading into next year's midterms.

Should the party focus on Trump, whose approval rating is in the tank? (Pro tip: It wasn't so hot in the presidential election, either.) Or should it try to have something else to stand on and sell as a unified party vision? Can it do both?

So far, Democrats haven't been able to walk that line. This year, they are 0 for 4 in special elections, from Kansas to Montana to Georgia and South Carolina. Some Democrats are taking solace in the fact that they fared better in each of those places than candidates who ran for those seats in 2016. And maybe with good reason.

But Georgia 6 was the most moderate by far. Yes, Democrats need to win a net of 24 seats to take back Congress, and 47 districts held by Republicans are less conservative than Georgia 6. But it's the kind of district Democrats need to win to take back the House.

It is the sixth-most-educated district in the country and chock full of moderate, suburban Republicans. (The top five most-educated districts are held by Democrats, as are 13 of the top 15.)

Those Republicans chose their comfort level with their party and a candidate in Karen Handel, who is a known quantity, over someone with little experience — who didn't even live in the district — in Jon Ossoff.

So is it possible Democrats can still take back the House? Sure, but it's always been less than likely because of how the districts are drawn. And this was a race they needed for momentum in the short run.

The loss is already negatively affecting the "resistance's" morale and could hurt recruiting. That's not to mention what it could mean in Washington. President Trump tweeted that Democrats should stop "obstruction" and work with Republicans:

Trump weighed into the race, tweeting support for Handel. Handel didn't talk much about Trump on the trail but embraced him as the party's leader and welcomed him to the district if he so chose to go. Will that be how other candidates in somewhat moderate districts deal with the Trump factor?

GOP leadership in the Senate is set to drop a health care bill this week, to be voted on next week. Had Georgia turned out differently, it's possible the bill would have been dead and something more moderate would have emerged.

But Republicans don't see a need for that now with the wind at their backs again.

What's more, there is already renewed pressure for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to step aside. She was the main focus of many of the Republicans' ads against Ossoff. Moulton supported Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan in his failed bid for Democratic leader. Do those calls grow stronger?

Pelosi staffer Drew Hammill defended Pelosi as the party's best fundraiser who keeps the conference in line:

Ossoff tried to walk the Dean-Moulton Line. Dean's group actually endorsed Ossoff, and he gladly took that San Francisco and Hollywood money. Ossoff did not campaign as the resistance candidate, though, despite that being projected onto him by the Democratic (and GOP) base.

Progressives made this about Trump, even if Ossoff didn't, and they lost.

On the ground, he didn't talk much about Trump and tried to appear moderate, talking about the issues important to the district.

That didn't work either.

It could be that Ossoff shouldn't have taken that outside money and refused the lefty image. It could be that he should have leaned in more to the anti-Trump messaging. Or it could be that a somewhat wooden 30-year-old documentary filmmaker and former Capitol Hill staffer didn't have much of a chance in the first place in a right-leaning district.

The fundamentals of this race always favored Handel. As a former Georgia secretary of state who had run twice (and failed) for governor and Senate, she was better-known. The district has long been Republican. And there are far more registered Republicans in the district.

With all the attention on the race, turnout was up for a special election, and that helps the party with the registration advantage.

All of Ossoff's deficiencies would have been papered over by a win. With the loss, not only are they magnified, but so are the party's.

And what is the party right now — a "big tent" inclusive party or one with label-shaming litmus tests, like the ones it used to criticize conservatives for having?

How the party and its candidates should proceed from here sure sounds like the existential conversation Republicans were having with themselves in the age of Obama.

The GOP put out an autopsy advocating for specifics after Obama was re-elected — in particular, calling on candidates to support comprehensive immigration reform.

And then the rank and file nominated Donald Trump — and he won.

Go figure.

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Transcript :


Democrats are reeling from their loss yesterday in the special election in Georgia. It was widely seen as an early indicator of the party's chances to gain control of the House of Representatives in 2018. We're going to talk about what the results might mean and what they might not mean with NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro. Hey there.


MCEVERS: So this race, of course, got tons of attention nationally. More money was spent on this election than any other for Congress ever. Republicans are relieved with their win. For Democrats it seems like there's been a lot of finger pointing today.

MONTANARO: Undoubtedly. I mean, it's best summed up by two responses from two different wings of the Democratic left. On the one hand, you have Jim Dean, who runs the progressive activist group Democracy for America. He said defeating Republicans requires running on a bold, progressive vision rather than what he says are establishment Democrats and what they - their sort of playbook has been and what they've done before.

On the other hand, you have this congressman, Seth Moulton, from Massachusetts who backed a challenger to Nancy Pelosi when she was up for House minority leader again. And Pelosi factored heavily into this race. Republicans ran ad after ad after ad using Pelosi's image, trying to tie Ossoff to her and make him a Pelosi puppet. And Moulton says that the result really should be, quote, "a wakeup call" for Democrats and that they need to focus on the future, have a, quote, "bigger tent" and stop rehashing the 2016 presidential campaign.

MCEVERS: Let's talk about President Trump a little bit. His approval rating is pretty low. Did that affect how Republican Karen Handel ran her campaign in this race?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, you know, part of what happened here, you know, is that Karen Handel really tried to walk the line when it came to Donald Trump. She didn't want to have to embrace Donald Trump. She didn't talk about him very much during the campaign. But at the same time, she understood he's the president.

She came out the day after the first round of voting and said, look, he's the leader of our party. And he's welcome to come to Georgia 6 to campaign for me if that's what he wants to do. So it may be a roadmap for Republicans in the future as they have to deal with a president who might not have such great approval ratings.

MCEVERS: President Trump on Twitter then called for Democrats to stop their obstruction and work with Republicans. Does this win help that agenda along?

MONTANARO: In the short run, yes. I mean, Republicans really feel like they have the wind at their backs. If Karen Handel had lost, the Democrats were - and Democrats were able to pick up what has really been a reliable Republican seat, there might have been some second thoughts in the Senate about that health care bill, for example, that's likely to drop any day now. It's been written in private. And I had one former top aide say that he thought it was possible the Senate would have shelved the bill and the House come up with something driven by Republican moderates but not now. Now Republicans are full steam ahead.

MCEVERS: Wow. I mean, it sounds like this race was pretty important. But what does that - what does it mean for the midterms, for next year? Does this mean that Democrats will not be able to take back the House - the million-dollar question.

MONTANARO: I know. And it - you know, I never like to overinterpret special elections because that can be a real problem. You know, it's always been less likely - less than likely that Democrats take back the House because of how the districts have been drawn.

Just to give you an example of this and to tell you how much things have changed since redistricting after the last census, in 2006, the last time Democrats won the House, almost 30 percent of the House was seen as potentially competitive. Now that number is below 10 percent - 10 percent. That means fewer than 40 seats or so, you know, or maybe, you know, less than that. Democrats need to pick up 24 seats overall.

So it's possible. It's possible Democrats could take back the House. But this was the type of seat Democrats needed to win and just weren't able to do it. You know, this was educated, suburban, moderate Republicans. They lost them. And their margin for error next year was always narrow, and now it just got narrower.

MCEVERS: Does that mean they just don't have a winning strategy yet?

MONTANARO: They really don't have a message or an agenda that appeals to red state voters in the South, in these red state districts or, frankly, to young voters. And you're seeing that Obama coalition that had been glued together really kind of crumble, fall apart, and Democrats needing to piece it back together and still haven't figured out how.

MCEVERS: NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro. Thank you so much.

MONTANARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.