Democrats, reeling from Georgia loss, face 2018 reality check

Jon Ossoff supporter Jan Yanes, center, cries as Democratic candidate for 6th Congressional District Ossoff concedes to Republican Karen Handel at his election night party in Atlanta, Tuesday, June 20, 2017.
Jon Ossoff supporter Jan Yanes, center, cries as Democratic candidate for 6th Congressional District Ossoff concedes to Republican Karen Handel at his election night party in Atlanta, Tuesday, June 20, 2017. AP

Congressman John Lewis, before the votes were counted Tuesday, called Jon Ossoff’s candidacy “not just a campaign” but a “movement.”

Lewis and the rest of the Democratic Party were reminded a few hours later that movements can still lose elections.

Ossoff’s loss to Republican Karen Handel highlights a painful truth for Democrats: At a time when most House battlegrounds lean Republican, their party’s newfound surge of energy — on its own — will struggle to deliver big victories in next year’s midterm election, as it has in a slew of special election defeats this year.

Ossoff’s campaign had nothing if not an abundance of election-obsessed supporters, who helped him raise an unprecedented amount of money and assemble a small army of door-knocking volunteers. Many of them were political neophytes, men and women who once rarely voted but now served as precinct captains and social-media advocates.

But Ossoff still lost in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District because his supporters, even when combined with politically moderate independents, couldn’t outnumber Republican partisans. In the election’s final days, GOP strategists working the race said if Handel simply turned out enough GOP partisans, Ossoff and the Democrats wouldn’t be able to catch up.

They were right.

“This is not the outcome many of us were hoping for,” Ossoff told supporters during his concession speech. “But this the beginning of something much bigger than us.”

Democrats say Georgia’s 6th District is more Republican than the kind they need to win a House majority during next year’s midterm elections. And indeed, it’s been held by a Republicans since 1979 and voted overwhelmingly for past GOP presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney.

They also say special elections are rarely predictive of the coming election.

But the Ossoff loss clearly struck a negative chord with some party leaders.

“#Ossof Race better be a wake up call for Democrats — business as usual isn't working,” said Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, in a late Tuesday night Tweet. “Time to stop rehashing 2016 and talk about the future.”

In a follow-up Tweet, he said Democrats “need a genuinely new message.”

Ossoff’s loss to Handel followed a familiar pattern of House special elections in 2017: In the four that have been held this year, Democrats dramatically improved on their showing from last year’s races but ultimately fell short.

Ossoff, a 30-yer-old first-time candidate, was supposed to have the best chance to actually win, running in a suburban Atlanta congressional district where Donald Trump barely won despite its traditional Republican lean.

He earned a surprising 48 percent of the vote in the first round of voting in April, and for much of the last month, polls showed him holding a small lead in what had become the most expensive House race ever.

Republicans acknowledged that the race never should have been this close, but also couldn't help breathing a sigh of relief. Ossoff's loss, they say, throws a wrench in the narrative that Democrats are in a position to take back the House amid Trump's faltering approval numbers.

"It's a sign that Democrats are still a party lost at sea with a platform out of touch with anyone outside of San Francisco," said one senior Republican operative, pointing to losses in a host of special elections so far this year. "If you were to listen to the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee], Trump is their meal ticket back into the majority."

Several Republican operatives in Washington also heaped praise on the Paul Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund's efforts in Georgia, in particular its field organization. The Super PAC spent $7 million on the race.

But other Republicans avoided the victory lap, cautioning against reading too much into Handel's victory in a race a year and a half before the midterm elections.

"What matters to me is what we can do in the next 12 months," said Austin Barbour, a prominent Mississippi-based GOP strategist. "If we don't get stuff done legislatively in the next 12 months or even 14 or 15 months, we will be in for a rough ride as a party, as a country. That's what ultimately matters...I'm glad Karen Handel won tonight, but that's the big picture."

Republicans, who control both chambers on Capitol Hill, are under pressure from their base to land some big-ticket accomplishments, like repealing and replacing Obamacare and tax reform, that have so far proved challenging. Another senior Republican strategist involved in the midterm elections warned that even though Democrats have yet to notch any special election victories, the 2018 climate, following historical trends, still looks to be tough for the GOP. And though they didn't pull it off in Georgia, the Democratic base is clearly fired up, Republicans acknowledge.

"We will face a more difficult environment than Republicans have faced in over a decade," this strategist said. "Anybody who doesn't prepare accordingly will lose their race. Look how much money was spent on this one. Republicans aren't going to have this much money to spend on every race."

Meanwhile, a little-noticed special election in South Carolina's Fifth District surprised even veteran political observers in the state by how close it ultimately was on Tuesday.

Ralph Norman, a conservative former state representative, had publicly set expectations for a victory of "seven, eight points at least, not four or five," warning that a smaller margin would galvanize Democrats in a district that Trump won by 18 percentage points. Mick Mulvaney, the Republican who held the seat before becoming director of the Office of Management and Budget, won it by 20 points.

But for Norman Tuesday evening, the margin of victory was closer to three percentage points in a low-turnout election. Some Republicans said the national climate is in part to blame.

"All of these special election congressional races were more than safe seats, they weren't really competitive seats," said Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "What it tells you is, Republicans and the president have work to do. These numbers should be way north of what they are right now."

He praised Norman's campaign, but went on to add, "what it tells me is, we've got 23 seats Hillary Clinton won. Those are going to be 23 pretty expensive seats for Republicans to keep."

Norman was running against Archie Parnell, a former longtime Goldman Sachs official abroad who received little national help or attention — especially compared to Ossoff — but did maintain an aggressive retail-politicking schedule, an activity that, he readily admitted, didn't come naturally to the earnest, soft-spoken Parnell.

"By everyone's estimation, that should have been a wider margin," said Chip Felkel, another veteran South Carolina Republican strategist. "I would not have been surprised by a 15 point win from Norman. So a five-point win tells me that either Parnell ran a really great race, or Republicans have to be careful about just how sold people are on the Trump administration's approach to things."

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6078, @Alex_Roarty; Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck