As Republicans said on Wednesday, check the scoreboard. Four congressional elections have been held in seats vacated by Republicans who joined the Trump administration. All four have been won by Republicans, albeit by single-digit margins. Democrats, who hoped to put up a win to prove that the public was rejecting the Trump and Republican agendas, ended the week in a rote and nasty fight about whether it was really worth keeping Nancy Pelosi as the party’s leader in the House if Republicans were going to batter red- and purple-district Democrats with her image.
Nearly every take has now been written; but as one of very few reporters who visited each of the districts, I got some take left in me.
Pelosi is a drag but not for the reasons you think. The flashiest ads in Georgia, from the Congressional Leadership Fund — a House Speaker Paul D. Ryan-backed super PAC — portrayed “Californians” (actually, actors) thanking Georgia for sending a “liberal congressman” to join their “liberal congresswoman.” Pelosi, liberal. Pelosi, California. The ads write themselves.
I’d argue that Pelosi hurt for another reason, and it was complicating what should have been a clear case — that Democrats now represented change in Congress and a challenge to one-party rule. The occasional chaos inside the Republican Party, dating from Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, has been somewhat embraced by Republicans who believe that some voters can be turned out to back Trump and some to back the party they’re used to. Democrats, who five years ago defeated Ryan’s bid for the vice presidency, did not — in any of these races — run against Ryan’s control of the House, responsible for a deeply unpopular health-care bill. The attacks on Pelosi, promising “higher taxes,” made it seem as though she was in command of Congress and needed a foot soldier.
As unpopular as Trump gets, Republican strategists are oddly confident that he, and not Ryan, will remain the star of attack ads — giving them a shot at telling voters the choice is really between Ryan and Pelosi for speaker. Of course, that’s what a 2018 House election will be. Yet Democrats have not yet adjusted their frame.
The Resistance is being turned against Democrats. The most important punch that the CLF threw was thrown early, in March, when Republicans wanted only to turn out enough of their base to prevent a first-round Jon Ossoff win. After branding the candidate as a lightweight kid — an attack that backfired — the super PAC ran a spot called “Extremists,” in which the lines between Women’s March activists and window-smashing “black bloc” anarchists were blurred. “THEY WANT OSSOFF,” a chyron screamed.
This did more than spook Republicans — it assured them that they were part of a silent majority, and that threats to law and order were the fault of Democrats. It was a neat trick, because Trump’s approval rating slipped throughout the election, and on Election Day he was viewed negatively. Attacking the “resistance” as extreme fixed some of that, because it fed into an ongoing culture-war motif, in which screaming protesters, elite professors and dangerous left-wingers are an ever-present threat. And the ads fed into a boon for Karen Handel that has already been forgotten. Handel led the Republican pack in the first round and ultimately won the seat.
Political violence hurt the Democrats. In the final fortnight of the campaign, the CLF and NRCC ran ads featuring comic Kathy Griffin’s “severed head” photo of Trump, and an obscure PAC produced an ad linking Ossoff to the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) during a baseball practice outside Washington. It’s important to note here that mainstream GOP groups left the shooting alone. But they do believe that the shooting, and its aftermath, hurt Ossoff. My understanding is that Ossoff was in the margin of error with Handel before the shooting — one point behind, at most — but that a few thousand more Republicans ended up voting because of it.
The shooting fit into the story line that the CLF and NRCC had written, of an out-of-control resistance motivated not on anything good, but on hatred of Trump. And after the shooting, local news reported both that 1) the shooter had written a Facebook post attacking Handel and that 2) envelopes with white powder and a threatening message were sent to her home and the homes of neighbors. We don’t know who sent them; the message, which attacked the “bourgeoisie,” struck some observers as a possible dirty trick.
Georgia-style turnout would still win seats for Democrats. Plenty has been made of the fact that all of Ossoff’s turnout operation left him a couple of hundred votes behind the no-name Democrat who lost to Tom Price in 2016. But that obscures how big 124,893 votes can be in a midterm election. In 2014, 210,504 votes were cast in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District — total — and that year’s no-hoper Democrat won 71,486 of them. But in every single Georgia district, 124,893 votes would have represented more than half of the total votes cast.
Put this another way. From 2014 to the 2017 special election, the Democratic vote in Georgia’s 6th District rose by 74.7 percent. The Republican vote declined by 3.3 percent. And that was the absolute best Republican performance in any of these special elections. In Kansas’s 4th District, the GOP vote fell by more than 60 percent from the 2014 midterm; the Democrats’ vote fell by 20 percent. At the very least, Democrats are trending toward the sort of resilient midterm turnout that nets dozens of seats.