The culture war is alive and well — even where you might not expect it. That’s one of the most overlooked lessons of yesterday’s special election in Georgia. While a lot of was made of the absurd amounts of money spent on the race, the question of Donald Trump’s effect down-ballot or which voters would turn out, Republicans won by going back to a playbook they’ve used a thousand times before, one based on fear and contempt of culturally alien liberals.
In many ways, this race was unique — it’s not as though in 2018 there will be a national spotlight and $50 million poured into all 435 House districts. But if you weren’t watching closely, you may have missed the scorched-earth culture war campaign that Republicans ran against Democrat Jon Ossoff. They barely attempted to make a case for Karen Handel; instead, their argument was that Ossoff is basically a Hollywood San Francisco radical hippie anarchist lunatic controlled by — cover the children’s ears — Nancy Pelosi.
That was the running theme of the television ads and direct mailers that flooded the district, convincing Republican voters that whatever misgivings they had about the Trump administration and however much Ossoff portrayed himself as a mainstream technocrat whose biggest priority was bringing high-tech jobs to metro Atlanta, nothing mattered more than their tribal hatred of liberals. You might think Karen Handel’s brand of extreme social conservatism (among other things she would outlaw not only same-sex marriage but also gay couples adopting children) would be a liability in a highly educated district like the Georgia 6th, but it wasn’t.
As Nate Cohn pointed out a few days ago, 13 of the 15 congressional districts with the highest levels of education in the country are safe Democratic districts; only Georgia’s 6th and a suburban Virginia district are in Republican hands. That’s why Democrats saw an opening in this election. They hoped that with this electorate, which was far more comfortable with Mitt Romney than with Donald Trump (Trump won the district by 2 points, while Romney won it by 23), a mainstream, non-threatening Democrat could win.
But he couldn’t. Which isn’t to say Ossoff wasn’t a candidate without plenty of weaknesses, but if Republicans can win on the culture war in Georgia’s 6th, they can do it almost anywhere.
That’s partly because they have so much practice. For half a century, they’ve been telling voters that Democrats are alien radicals who indulge criminal minorities and bring chaos and violence wherever they go. Richard Nixon rode that message to the White House in 1968 (just check out this ad), and Republicans have been doing it ever since. So Ossoff, Republicans said, was “not one of us,” the ultimate distillation of the culture war attack. As one ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee said over pictures of anarchists smashing windows and Kathy Griffin holding up Trump’s severed head, “D.C. liberals, Hollywood elites, this is who supports Jon Ossoff. Because Jon Ossoff is one of them. Childish. Radical. They’ve targeted Georgia, but we can stop them.”
In the wake of yesterday’s result, a lot of people have advised the Democrats that the solution to this problem is for Nancy Pelosi to resign, which would supposedly prevent Republicans from demonizing her. Some of that advice is coming from people who obviously don’t have the Democrats’ best interests at heart, but a lot of it is sincere. Unfortunately, it misreads not just that attack but also the way the GOP does business. While there may be legitimate reasons to ask whether Pelosi should remain the leader of House Democrats — we probably should debate whether the current Democratic leadership is making good strategic and investment decisions — that’s a separate topic from whether she has become a liability as a cultural symbol.
It’s certainly true that Pelosi is a villain for rank-and-file voters. Is that because of her politics? Of course not — her positions on issues are basically those of the entire Democratic Party. Is it because she’s from San Francisco? Of course — Republicans have been using “San Francisco” as a symbol for conservative baby boomers’ resentments for decades, a representation of all the drug-taking and free love and fun that the hippies had while the buzzcut squares seethed with jealousy and contempt. Is it because Pelosi is an older woman? Oh, you bet it is. Just like Hillary Clinton, she has been the target of a nakedly misogynistic campaign of vilification for years, one that is now baked deep into Republican politics.
And if you’re not a regular consumer of conservative media, you might not realize just how relentless that campaign has been, how often Pelosi is held up by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and the rest of the talk radio/Fox News nexus as everything that good honest Americans should hate. Which is why nothing Pelosi does actually matters. She barely appears on TV, but she’s as potent a symbol for Republicans as ever. She could retire tomorrow, and I promise you, Republicans would still run a thousand ads with her face in them in 2018.
That wouldn’t last forever, but by the time it faded, the conservative propaganda machine would have replaced her with a different villain. We’ve seen again and again how effective that machine can be: One Democratic politician after another has begun with a profile as an inoffensive, hardworking, substantive public servant (think Dukakis, Gore, Kerry), then quickly turned into a monster who threatened everything Republican voters hold dear.
What that means is that the one mistake Democrats can’t make again — the one they’ve made so many times before — is to say, “If we find the right person, Republicans won’t be able to attack him.” They will, no matter who that person is. Democrats need to take that culture war attack as a given and find more potent attacks in response — the way they did with Mitt Romney, but didn’t with Donald Trump. Or with Karen Handel.