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Opinion Three lessons for Trump opponents from Tuesday’s special elections

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)

Democrats left disappointed and frustrated by the special-election loss in the 6th Congressional District in Georgia understandably are tired of “moral victories.” Nevertheless, they shouldn’t be shy about pointing to Tuesday’s other special election. In the South Carolina 5th Congressional District contest to fill the seat left by Mick Mulvaney’s elevation to the Office of Management and Budget, Democrat Archie Parnell lost by 3 points. (Remember that President Trump won the district by nearly 20 points.)

Now, Democrats have to figure out how to tip competitive districts, many of them less Republican than the GA-6 and SC-5, into their column in 2018. Anti-Trump Republicans, meanwhile, need their own strategy.

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Here are a few takeaways from the near-misses on Tuesday:

First, Democrats must tie Republican incumbents explicitly (both Republicans in the Tuesday races were replacing incumbents) to Trump and to votes on health care and other unpopular measures. It’s one thing to warn voters that the Republican is likely to go along with Trump’s agenda; it’s another to reel off a list of votes that betray working- and middle-class Americans. It will be time to hold Trump accountable for the myriad of promises he made. Where are the new manufacturing jobs? The new and improved trade deals? The improvement in the Department of Veterans Affairs? Republicans in Congress who are not inclined to hold the president’s feet to the fire should get booted out.

Second, Democrats need to figure out a positive agenda on which to run. In a statement after the GA-6 loss, complained: “In the closing weeks of the race, [Jon] Ossoff and the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] missed an opportunity to make Republicans’ attack on health care the key issue, and instead attempted to portray Ossoff as a centrist, focusing on cutting spending and coming out opposition to Medicare for All. This approach did not prove a recipe for electoral success. Democrats will not win back power merely by serving as an alternative to Trump and Republicans.” This goes to the nub of the divide between centrist and more progressive Democrats, but the overall point is correct: By 2018, Democrats will need to run on something.

In that regard, they might try their own contract with voters promising to force Trump to divest his holdings that pose ongoing conflicts of interest; opposing transfers of wealth from the poorest (e.g., Medicaid recipients) to the richest Americans (such as in the House GOP’s American Health Care Act); setting out a specific infrastructure bill; repealing the counterproductive Budget Control Act (that shrinks necessary military funding and popular domestic programs); guaranteeing transparent government (no more secret drafting and votes without a score from the Congressional Budget Office) and proposing legislation to require that the president release his tax returns. Other ideas would include full funding for anti-opioid abuse programs and improved access to health care for rural residents. Most of all, Democrats should run on the GOP’s utter failure to protect the electoral system from foreign manipulation.

Third, Republicans who have held firm and opposed Trump cannot count on Democrats to knock out Trump enablers. #NeverTrump Republicans should, where feasible, consider primary challenges and/or third-party races to present voters with an alternative center-right candidate, someone who will insist on enforcement of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, root out Trumpian corruption, demand that the president fulfill promises to rebuild the military and take on his complete failure to reform the bureaucracy. If, as we expect, Republicans fail to pass health-care legislation that improves coverage and/or a tax plan that actually benefits middle- and working-class Americans, primary and third-party opponents must make the case against reelecting do-nothing incumbents.

Democrats would make a serious mistake by adopting a one-ideology-fits-all approach to the midterms. They do, however, need to be united on a coherent indictment of the Trump administration and its congressional handmaidens. That, plus a nationalized agenda stressing highly popular items, would maximize their chances of taking back the House and knocking out a senator or two. Meanwhile, #NeverTrump Republicans had better get into the electoral fight.