Narrow losses in two House special elections had Democrats once again trading recriminations Wednesday and pondering anew whether their leaders have them on a path back to power.
Especially painful was Jon Ossoff’s three-percentage-point loss Tuesday in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District after his campaign was buoyed by more than $23 million in donations, much of it from grass-roots Democrats across the country eager to oppose President Trump.
That funding surge was blunted by millions of dollars’ worth of TV ads and mailers from Republican victor Karen Handel and from outside GOP groups. A common theme in those efforts was to tie Ossoff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — a figure both well-known and widely reviled, according to Republican polling.
That had Pelosi’s Democratic critics rekindling their calls for new faces atop the party caucus, warning that Democrats could squander their chances of retaking the House majority in next year’s midterm elections.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi in House leadership elections held after the November election, said that even talented candidates cannot overcome “the toxicity of the national Democratic brand.”
“It makes it a heck of a lot harder,” he said of Pelosi’s prominent place in GOP ads. “That approach still has a little bit of punch to it. It still moves voters.”
Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC that spent $7 million on the Georgia race, agreed.
“I don’t know what we’d do without Pelosi,” he said Wednesday. “I hope she never retires. Another Democratic leader would not start with that level of name recognition.”
Inside a House Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday morning on Capitol Hill, Pelosi labeled the loss as “clearly a setback,” according to a person in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting.
Pelosi noted that Trump selected his Cabinet appointees from “deep-red” Republican districts to guard against Democratic pickups. “But we gave them a run for their money,” she said, according to the source.
According to multiple attendees, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, emphasized that the party’s candidates in the recent special elections have outperformed expectations and that Democrats have a real chance of retaking the majority — echoing the content of a lengthy memo the DCCC issued Wednesday.
“Let’s put this into context for our work ahead: there are somewhere between 94 and 71 districts more competitive depending on how you measure it,” Luján wrote in the memo. “We will take the many lessons learned from Georgia’s 6th District and apply them to the battlefield, which consists of many districts that are fundamentally far more competitive.”
But the now-familiar refrain of “close but no cigar” has worn on rank-and-file House Democrats who want to see concrete results.
“Look, we need to win. Everything else is bulls---,” said Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), who led an independent examination of the House Democratic performance in 2016. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
Ryan said he wanted to hear more about the party’s efforts to hone an economic message and less about how close Democrats came to winning.
“I come out of the sports world, and it’s like, you either win or you lose, you know?” he said. “I am not pleased with a conversation going along the lines of, ‘Well, we had a moral victory.’ I don’t like moral victories. I like victories.”
Three Democratic leaders — Reps. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), David N. Cicilline (R.I.) and Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) — are in the midst of an effort to overhaul the party’s messaging in the wake of the 2016 election results, and Pelosi told colleagues Wednesday that the effort was accelerating.
“Attacking Trump is not enough,” a senior Democratic aide said late Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about strategy.
This aide played down the possibility of any immediate attempt to remove Pelosi but said that Tuesday’s result “doesn’t help her for the next cycle,” when she probably will face a strong challenge to her perch should Democrats fail to secure the House majority.
Despite the complaints, most of the open dissent came from Democrats who had already broken with Pelosi after the November elections. Even her doubters respect her ability to raise money and manage a fractious caucus, and she maintains a strong base of support within it.
“I don’t think people got up in the morning and said, ‘Boy, I’m going to make it though this rainstorm so I can vote against Nancy Pelosi,’ ” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), a close ally of the Democratic leader. “I don’t think that’s what motivates people. I really don’t.”
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, said the GOP would have seized on any Democratic leader to tar one of the party’s candidates in a Republican-leaning district.
“Republicans have done the targeting of whoever is the Democratic leader from the days of Tip O’Neill, and since the speakership of Newt Gingrich, the politics of personal destruction has been a Republican hallmark,” he said. “This is what they do.”
“Obviously [Georgia’s 6th] is a deep-red district, and Republicans don’t get to pick who is the Democratic leader,” he added.
The other result Tuesday — in South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, where Republican Ralph Norman defeated Democrat Archie Parnell by three points — generated a different kind of finger-pointing.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the assistant House Democratic leader and the state’s most prominent Democratic politician, said Wednesday that he was disappointed that more was not done to turn out African American voters.
Outside commentators who saw the closer-than-expected result — Republican Mick Mulvaney, now the White House budget director, won the seat in November by 20 points — said national Democratic groups including the DCCC should have spent more in the state.
But Clyburn said he asked the DCCC “not to make it a national cause” and that he “intentionally did not want it nationalized . . . because I know how South Carolina voters are.”
Both the Georgia and South Carolina losses, Clyburn said, had nothing to do with Pelosi in his view, but he said that Republican outside spending — which largely highlighted her — “had a tremendous adverse impact, no question about that.”
“Southern voters are a totally different breed,” he added. “And Southern voters react parochially.”
But Bliss said Pelosi attacks have broad resonance.
“We have 12 offices around the country, in kind of similar swingy districts,” he said. “What works in all of them? The choice: Do you want Pelosi or [House Speaker Paul D. Ryan] to lead in Congress? . . . Pelosi means raising your taxes and cutting the military; Ryan means lowering your taxes and supporting the troops.”
Democrats argue that that is changing. In the DCCC memo, Luján said the House Republican agenda is “deeply unpopular” and that the pending GOP health-care bill “will haunt every single House Republican through Election Day.”
“This is about much more than one race: the national environment, unprecedented grass-roots energy and impressive Democratic candidates stepping up to run deep into the battlefield leave no doubt that Democrats can take back the House next fall,” he wrote.
Ed O’Keefe and David Weigel contributed to this report.