Democrat Jon Ossoff lost Tuesday in a special congressional election in Georgia. It should have meant nothing, but instead it meant everything for all the wrong reasons. The Democrats transformed something that never should have mattered into yet another crisis for themselves.
The special congressional election in an affluent Atlanta suburb — to fill the vacancy created by Republican Tom Price taking a Cabinet position in the Trump administration — was foolishly blown out of proportion from the start by Democrats.
They made it into a referendum on President Donald Trump and created all the hysteria and expectations about victory. The media and other political pundits across the nation did the same. Wrong. As I have repeatedly argued, one special election should never be treated as a harbinger or referendum on anything beyond what happens within that district. As former House Speaker Tip O’Neill once said, all politics is local.
Each race is unique
Yes, national issues may intrude, but local races are ultimately decided by local issues. Candidates and parties who think there are national, one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter strategies to winning across the country are doomed to lose. Each race is unique; no special election is a proxy for the nation. To think otherwise ignores the reality of statistics and not generalizing from one election to the rest of the nation, and it simply ignores demographics and trends that define each district.
But, yet again, Democrats could not resist. They made Georgia a do or die. They saw a district that Trump won last year by 1.5 percebt and thought they could win the congressional seat even though the then incumbent in 2016 won a blow-out victory. They assumed Tuesday there would be a coattails effect (Trump did not win by much and so perhaps they could win this congressional seat) even though there was no coattails effect last fall. They declared probable victory, dumped money, time, and other resources into it. But mostly they dumped hype into it. What they did not dump into it was a narrative and strategy. Instead, they yet again pinned hope on dislike for Trump, changing demographics, and a belief that Democrats and other voters will come to their senses and vote for a Democrat. It wasn’t enough of a strategy, and that should not have been a surprise. After all, this was Hillary Clinton’s strategy and she lost.
Created unreal expectations
Because Democrats made such a big deal of this race, creating expectations wildly beyond the probable, losing the special election is now devastation. It is seen as a victory for Trump, a loss for the Democratic Party, and the pundits will declare it just that. Democrats would have been smart not to have nationalized this race, instead treating it as a special local election and developing a candidate, narrative, and strategy suitable for the race. They should have said it was a long shot to win in the South, that the Republican was heavily favored, and then if they won or got close they could have declared a victory if they wanted. At the end of the day, did anyone seriously think a Democrat was going to win in Georgia?
So a race that should have meant nothing now means everything. It shows Democrats learned nothing from the Clinton loss and Trump victory last year. Democrats going into 2018 have no narrative to win except to say Trump is terrible. They have no agenda or policy platform to appeal to working-class voters who fled the Democrats for Trump. They still think demographics is destiny, and that they will win simply by being a reasonable alternative. The Georgia loss is meaningful because it reveals all these flaws in the Democratic Party game plan — and now they will have to suffer through the Trump and Republican gloating and pundit pounding for creating their own hyped-up disaster.
David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.” He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared.
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