WASHINGTON, June 21, 2017 — The vote in #GA06 was supposed to be a referendum on Donald Trump. The suburban Atlanta district had narrowly gone for Trump in November, but the Democrats had a young, photogenic, aggressively pleasant, gay-friendly, liberal-but-not-crazy-and-smells-like-a-centrist with all-American values to contest it now. He’d been endorsed by a civil rights icon and former representative, John Lewis, and Democratic widows around the country were eager to send him their mites. With their support he was able to spend $23 million on his campaign.
He’d been endorsed by a civil rights icon and former representative, John Lewis, and Democratic widows around the country were eager to send him their mites. With their support he was able to spend $23 million on his campaign.
It wasn’t enough.
His Republican opponent was, Democrats thought, stuck with the huge, stinking albatross of the Trump presidency hanging from her neck. Jon Ossoff had defeated her and 16 others in April’s jungle primary, failing by only two points to win it and the congressional seat outright. The Democrats had this one.
Yet Ossoff still lost.
Democrats around the country had pinned a lot of hope on Ossoff. “#GA6 a referendum on POTUS @realDonaldTrump.” At this point they’d better hope not.
Winning that seat would have left the congressional balance of power almost unchanged, but Democrats thought their anticipated victory would be a clear sign that the voters are sick of Trump. It would have been a harbinger of happy days in 2018. It would have felt so good.
The loss must feel awful.
Why did Ossoff lose? I don’t know. I don’t have detailed polling data, and I haven’t visited that district in years. Without detailed information about the voters there, the postmortems are an exercise in wishful thinking: Republicans diverted attention to the silly and inconsequential; the polls are wrong and voters really like Trump; Ossoff was all sizzle and no steak, and voters care about ideas.
In the age of Trump, big ideas are over-rated, but it seems clear that it takes more to win than simply being anti-Trump. And Ossoff did have quite a bit more.
First, he had an enthusiastic operation, and he threw himself into retail politics. He knocked on doors and his supporters knocked on doors. They tried to make the sale to Republicans, not just Democrats. He attended every local meeting that would let him in the door.
Republican Karen Handel was more aloof. She stuck to Republican meetings and closed-door fundraisers. She focused on turning out the Republican vote, apparently assuming that it would be enough.
She assumed correctly, but Democrats shouldn’t feel as bad as they do. The district went for Mitt Romney by 23 points, and while Handel managed to separate herself from the albatross, she won by only four points. Ossoff’s performance in that district was far better than anyone might have expected a few years ago.
If a solid Republican district can be that close, what will happen in less solid districts? Ossoff’s loss is disappointing to Democrats, but it shouldn’t be discouraging. It should push them into some soul-searching, though. There were four special congressional elections this year, and Republicans won them all. The margins were narrower than they were in past elections, and Republicans should do some soul-searching as well. But if Trump isn’t enough to push Democrats into victory, what is?
Some solid ideas and a clear brand might help. Anti-Trump isn’t a brand, and investigations and talk of impeachment aren’t a policy. Republicans have some reasons to worry about 2018 and 2020. If national Democrats can figure out who they are and what they’re for, that worry might turn into a panic. The almost certain knowledge that they won’t is why Republicans slept well last night.