The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t get demoralized by the big Georgia loss, Democrats

(David Goldman/Associated Press)


Obviously, it would have provided a huge lift for Democrats, and delivered a major blow to Republicans, if Jon Ossoff had prevailed in yesterday’s special election in the Atlanta suburbs. A win in a district that Republican Tom Price carried by 23 points in 2016 might have engendered mass panic among Republicans, leading to retirements, more distancing from the Trump agenda, and, possibly, an abandonment of the GOP health-care bill. The Democratic loss is of course a very painful one, given how much time, energy and money that the party — and rank-and-file activists — poured into the contest.

But still, the last thing Democrats should do right now is allow this loss — Ossoff fell short by just under 4 points — to demoralize them. Tweets like this from Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, are more than mere childish taunting; they are about depressing Democratic enthusiasm heading into 2018, by making rank-and-file Democrats feel like big losers:

Instead, let’s hope Democrats take a different message from this year’s special elections: The House is very much in play in 2018.

First, there’s the numbers-based case for the House being in play. That is made in a good piece by Dave Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, who is very much not given to fluffing Democrats’ chances when that’s unwarranted. Wasserman points out that Ossoff’s loss showed that he outperformed the district’s partisan lean by 6 points. (That partisan lean is calculated with a metric known as the Partisan Voter Index, which measures how each party should perform in each district by measuring the last two presidential vote spreads relative to the nation as a whole.) More to the point, Wasserman notes that Democratic candidates have outperformed their district’s partisan makeup in all five special elections this year, by an average of 8 points:

If Democrats were to outperform their “generic” share by eight points across the board in November 2018, they would pick up 80 seats. Of course, that won’t happen because Republican incumbents will be tougher to dislodge than special election nominees. But these results fit a pattern that should still worry GOP incumbents everywhere, regardless of Trump’s national approval rating and the outcome of the healthcare debate in Congress.

The crux of the matter is that of course an Ossoff win would have signaled that Republicans are in very deep trouble, and that would have been great for Democrats. But the fact that this didn’t happen does not undercut the idea that the general trends still show that the House is likely to be in play next year. As Wasserman concludes: “Republicans shouldn’t be tempted to believe their House majority is safe. In fact, their majority is still very much at risk.”

Republican Karen Handel, won the seat of former congressman Tom Price in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District on June 20 defeating Democrat Jon Ossoff. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Put another way, while it’s true that the GOP win last night staved off a wave of panic among Republicans, which itself was important for their party, that doesn’t mean the current trends shouldn’t worry them over the long term. Indeed, Wasserman’s analysis was endorsed this morning by GOP strategist Liam Donovan.

It’s certainly true that the environment could improve for Republicans between now and November 2018. But there are reasons to assume that it could continue as it is or deteriorate further. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign continues. Even if you think there is nothing there, we’ve already seen Trump’s own penchant for badly damaging himself via needless overreactions to the Russia probes, most notably when he fired former FBI director James B. Comey in a grievance-fueled rage, leading to Mueller’s appointment and putting himself under the microscope for possible obstruction. It’s possible the probe will turn up no serious lawbreaking. But a middle ground, in which Mueller documents a pattern of very troubling conduct and abuses of power, remains a real possibility. So, too, is the prospect of more Trump meltdowns, or perhaps a slide into full-blown authoritarianism.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Trump did not prove the drag in Georgia that Democrats hoped, to be sure. Republican turnout remained high; the GOP base is sticking with Trump; and he did not enable Democrats to peel off college-educated Republicans in the manner they had hoped. But many of the districts that Democrats will be competing in are not quite as red as this one was. Beyond that, I guarantee you that smart Republicans worry that Trump could get worse — a lot worse.

Meanwhile, Republicans continue their drive to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with a bill that is deeply hated by the American people. I hope they don’t succeed, but if they do, that could lead to more Democratic enthusiasm and recruitments and more alienation among swing voters. Indeed, if anything, the Georgia win makes it more likely that Republicans will repeal the ACA, and it also makes it more likely that Trump — fully convinced that the American people are rallying behind him, against his persecution at the hands of his political enemies via the ongoing investigation — could lash out by, say, trying to remove Mueller. We could be in new political territory before long.

Are there lingering questions, in last night’s loss, about the failures of Democrats’ messaging; about the failure to invest in lower-profile races that could have been won; and about how much of a liability Nancy Pelosi has become as leader? Sure. But often these types of recriminations are overstated and are driven by intra-party jockeying (which is fine and good; parties should have these debates) or a short-term desire on the part of critics for elite media approval. Beyond all this, Democratic candidates are going to be running in all sorts of districts, and they are going to make their own decisions about how to run, regardless of debates over national messaging. The best thing Democrats can do is recruit good candidates. There are also three dozen gubernatorial contests next year, many in states currently controlled by the GOP, and candidates in them will go their own ways. There is potential for big gains there — ones that will have long-term ramifications for the redrawing of House maps in the next decade. Let’s see what things look like after the Virginia gubernatorial race this fall.

The super-savvy smart-money take this morning is that Democrats need more than “moral victories.” Yes, of course this is true. There are real downsides to all these losses. They could dampen activist enthusiasm, fundraising and recruitment. But this does not have to happen. Democrats can, and should, avoid making this a self-fulling prophecy. The way to avoid this is to realize that, while things could of course be a lot better for Democrats, and while there is no guarantee that this will happen, it’s perfectly plausible that they remain on track to making serious gains next year.

* OSSOFF FALLS SHORT IN GOP DISTRICT: Alex Roarty and Katie Glueck make an important point: Republican strategists thought this race should have been theirs to win:

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.

There will be plenty of debate over whether there is some better way to win over GOP voters disaffected with Trump, but once again, this was a very Republican district.

* OSSOFF’S LOSS CARRIES MIXED MESSAGES: Nate Cohn notes that Democrats have lost four special elections this year, but all were in GOP districts, and Democrats outperformed in all of them. Moral: The political environment favors Democrats in 2018, but they still face an uphill battle:

Democrats wouldn’t be considered favorites in any of the races they lost this spring. If anything, Democrats did better in these special elections than would have been expected … If Democrats keep running ahead of expectations across … plausibly competitive Republican-held seats, many seats will ultimately fall their way. But they will certainly lose more than they win. The question is whether they win enough, and no special election offers the answer to that.

As Cohn notes, the basic problem is that Democrats have to win in a lot of GOP-leaning seats to take back the House. Ossoff’s loss tells us that this is possible, but difficult.

* SILVER: HOUSE IS ‘IN PLAY’: Nate Silver, echoing Dave Wasserman and Nate Cohn above, concludes from last night’s results that the House is “in play” and that we’re in a “substantially blue-leaning environment.” He adds:

Silver lays out a more detailed case for why Democrats should try to compete in many places right here.

* VOTER TURNOUT SOARED IN GEORGIA RACE: A silver lining: In both the April primaries and in yesterday’s runoff, voter turnout was off the charts:

Voter turnout in April was already high for a spring special election, and it soared during the runoff, to more than 240,000, from more than 190,000. Nearly 150,000 voters cast ballots before the polls opened on Tuesday, nearly three times the early vote in the first round. And nearly 40,000 of those people had not voted at all in April.

It’s hard to say whether this will benefit Democrats in the 2018 midterms, since it didn’t do enough last night, but more participation and engagement in them would be good to see.

* OPPOSITION TO GOP HEALTH BILL IS RISING: A new Politico-Morning Consult poll finds that approval of the GOP health-care bill is currently at 35-49, a slide from 38-44 since last month. And:

Republicans are on perilous political ground, according to the poll’s generic ballot test. Forty-three percent of voters say they would support the Democratic candidate for Congress in their district, compared to only 37 percent for the Republican candidate. Among voters who say their most important issue is health care, the Democratic candidate leads by 38 points, 61 percent to 23 percent.

So the fundamentals are still the same: The GOP is set to pass a horrifically hated health bill, and that could very well hurt the party further in 2018.

* REPEAL COULD FUEL OPIOID EPIDEMIC: Some harrowing reporting from the Los Angeles Times on another catastrophe that could unfold if Republicans repeal Obamacare:

Along the front lines of the drug epidemic, there is growing fear that the rush to scrap Obamacare could deepen a crisis that last year claimed more than 50,000 lives. The GOP campaign to repeal the current healthcare law and deeply cut Medicaid would devastate efforts to help tens of thousands of patients in need of treatment, say many of those whose job it is to combat the epidemic.

Reminder: Many communities ravaged by the opioid epidemic voted for one Donald J. Trump.


Democrats should “get together” with Republicans on health care? Does the president have any idea at all what’s in the GOP health-care bill? Does he have even the most cursory grasp of the fundamental dispute between the two parties over it?