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Trump, Congress, and Georgia: How the Democrats created their own political disaster

REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry
Jon Ossoff's loss should have meant nothing.

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.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

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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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/22/2017 - 08:45 am.

    It always was a long shot, except in the runoff with the dilution of GOP votes in the primary–Mr. Price, the shepherd of Trumpcare, always won by over a 20% margin. So peeling away most of that margin is an accomplishment in itself, but at that point you are well reaching the wall of the irreducible 30% of the population still in love with Trump. Good try.

    But I have this theory. Given the demographic shifts going on, the close affinity of Trump and GOP has a strong possibility to move the GOP into the permanently 30% party. Local, gerrymandered elections are winnable, but Senate and Presidential are not. A 60% disapproval rate is nothing to sneeze at. Up to now, the Trump base has been satisfied with sound and fury. What will happen when the GOP passes their form of Trumpcare and Trump economics, and actual damages to Trump’s base begin to occur?

    • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 06/22/2017 - 12:06 pm.

      Disapproval rating does not equate

      Obama was under water in his re-election bid but won. Trump may not win style and approval points, but trends are that people are starting to have a stronger outlook on the economy in the future. That has always been the indicator to look at for a re-election chance and the party in power. The midterms are generally unfavorable to the party in power so the GOP has to face that. But your statement is still rooted in why the Dems lost, anti-Trump instead of promoting, well, almost anything.
      Romney and the GOP lost to Obama because they did not articulate a strong case against Obama and was more anti-Obama than their own platform.

    • Submitted by Marc Post on 06/22/2017 - 01:10 pm.

      Doesn’t matter much

      Disapproval ratings don’t matter much. Time and time again, voters vote against their best interest. The last election cycle is proof.

      They may only have 30% approval, but that does not mean Dems have 70% approval. That 30% has the White House, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court and the MN House and Senate.

      That 30% is more than enough to beat Democrats. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but if Dems don’t, they will forever be “losers”.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/22/2017 - 09:43 pm.

        Up til now, the Republican party has been the party of promises–the careful conflation of the 1% agenda and a populist rhetoric–always on the come, stymied by those dastardly Dem’s.. Now in control of the legislative and executive branch the real challenge will be to deliver to both the 1% and the Trump core.

        That’s where it will become tricky–it’s the 7-10 split of politics.

        Right now, the easiest is to deliver for the 1% and throw everyone else under the bus.

  2. Submitted by Marc Post on 06/22/2017 - 08:50 am.

    Spot on

    Thank you for your article. It’s spot on.

    Democrats are losing because they continue to focus everything nationally. That’s how Republicans have won State and local races. Republicans control the foundation of politics and will continue to as long as Democrats continue to ignore State and local races.

    If Democrats ever hope to win again, they need to fight down ticket, right down to the dog catcher.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/22/2017 - 09:17 am.

    Nope

    You should re-write the article and replace “Democrats” with “clueless pundits” and then you will be on to something.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/22/2017 - 09:49 am.

    Better

    We need to do better, but a lot of Democrats wonder if part of the reason our party is in the dire state it’s in is because we just walked away from too many battles and conceded just too many issues to the Republicans.

    • Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 06/22/2017 - 11:14 am.

      Democrats were and are afraid

      Of going to battle because they might alienate a moderate or right leaning voter in the next general election. Governing not to lose. Has not proven to be successful.

  5. Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 06/22/2017 - 09:56 am.

    Exactly!!!

    Democrats need to offer a clear alternative to Republican policies and candidates. And above all, be authentic. Finally, don’t campaign not to lose, but campaign as if winning or losing does not matter. What matters is putting your ideas out there and letting the voters decide. This circles back to being authentic. If you are liberal and progressive – own it! Don’t do the pivot nonsense to appease voters you pissed off earlier. Either a candidate is right for a district or they are not.

  6. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 06/22/2017 - 11:17 am.

    The problem with this analysis is that…

    … Ossoff pointedly did not run against Trump in the general election campaign. He ran an issue-oriented, milquetoast campaign about cutting the deficit and stuff like that. Not once did he run an ad that tied Karen Handel to the President. He brought a knife to a gunfight.

    • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 06/22/2017 - 12:01 pm.

      You’re right

      …in that he didn’t until all the money started pouring in and that the Dem PACs and Dem leadership, as they always do, run the campaign. Add in Hollywood and the Left Coast and the Dems again alienated the voters there. The district leans right, but the hubris and self-righteousness of running anti-Trump and Russia, Russia, Russia (which still has zero evidence) led to another defeat.

      The Dems have not learned and continue to point fingers instead of making a platform. If the Dems keep this up, they will lose more in 2018 than they ever have.

      • Submitted by Marc Post on 06/22/2017 - 01:02 pm.

        Another thing…

        He didn’t even live in the district he was running for. That seems a no-brainer losing move.

        They couldn’t find one Democrat who lived in the district? I realize he won the runoff, but why was he in it in the first place?

        • Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 06/22/2017 - 01:34 pm.

          I believe Jason Lewis does not live in his district

          And that did not stop Minnesota voters from electing him. Although, I agree that living in the district is useful.

      • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 06/23/2017 - 11:38 am.

        Um, no

        You can go back and look at the ads that Ossoff did run. He didn’t run an anti-Trump campaign at all in the general election.

  7. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/22/2017 - 11:57 am.

    What is the disaster?

    Republicans hold onto a Republican seat in a special election, which typically have low turnout. Where is the disaster in that? In the mind of Professor Schultz and naive observers.

    The real contest is in 2018, when every house seat is up and liberal and moderate voters will be out in force. Let’s see how Paulsen, Lewis and Emmer do then, based on their support for Trumpcare that passed the bill, their opposition to contraception and their other votes.

    • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/22/2017 - 01:51 pm.

      Trumpcare?

      I just hope the DFL candidates run on what they really desire – a single payer, government run healthcare system to replace failing Obamacare.

      The public will realize that Obamacare has failed and now these same people are making more promises that will fail.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/22/2017 - 01:57 pm.

      Disappointment, not Disaster

      I agree this was not a disaster. It was a disappointment, in that the Democrats had a fighting chance of taking the seat, but this does not change the make-up of the House one bit.

      The parts that come close to being a disaster are first, that so much time and money was poured into an outside chance. The second is that Democrats seem determined not to learnt he lesson that there is no “one size fits all” way of campaigning for the House.

  8. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 06/22/2017 - 04:27 pm.

    So odd

    Ossoff acted as if he were going to win, hyped himself and the race. Weird how he did that. Acting like a loser works so much better, right?

    Seriously, other than the candidate, who rightly hyped himself and the race, it was the Media hyping a Democratic win. National Democrats were slow to get involved but when they saw the close races in two other states they thought they might have a shot and jumped in. At least they showed some fight this time. But it wasn’t just National Dems, Ossoff had a huge ground effort lead by a large number of women who have been awakened but the election of Trump. We shouldn’t discount their efforts or their awakening.

    Also too, In 2006 Tom Price won the district by a 40 point margin (it was nearly 60 points Republican in the 90’s). Yesterday Handel won it by 4. Its trending Democrat and it wasn’t inconceivable that it might go this year.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/22/2017 - 04:35 pm.

    In a way…

    …I hope both Ron Gotzman and RB Holbrook are correct.

    I’d personally like to see Democrats go ahead and embrace the idea (and its ramifications down the road) of single-payer, government-run health care. It’s what most European countries have, and the outcomes are better, it costs less per person than our current, partly-dysfunctional system, it covers virtually everyone, and there are zero individual bankruptcies due to health care costs. It does away with health insurance companies, for the most part, and in several cases makes doctors, nurses, dentists and other medical practitioners either state employees or contract professionals, with the associated cost savings.

    The secret Republican plan about to be dumped on the Senate and the public will cover fewer people, incorporate a huge tax cut for the wealthy that has nothing to do with health care, will likely make health outcomes worse, since fewer people are likely to be covered, and it will do nothing to alleviate the burden of health care costs for middle-class and poor families.

    I hope I’m wrong about the Republican plan, but I’ll be surprised if that’s the case.

    In the meantime, having addressed Mr. Gotzman’s comment, I also agree with Mr. Holbrook. This was one House race in a heavily-Republican district in a heavily-Republican state in a heavily-Republican region of the country. I was sorry to see Democrats sink so much money and effort into a race they were unlikely to win. It would have been more newsworthy if he had won, certainly, but losing a House race to a Republican in an Atlanta suburb isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the least bit unexpected or novel. Meanwhile, though for different reasons than Mr. Gotzman, I suspect, I’m still waiting for the Democratic Party to form a coherent message and ideology that can be articulated to the general public in a way that will convince the vast majority of middle and lower-class voters that it’s in their interests to support Democratic policies rather than Republican ones.

    As several others have suggested, Tip O’Neill’s famous rule still applies to all of this: All politics is local. Every candidate has to be able to tie her or his message to the Democratic one, but every candidate is running in a race that’s unique, and whatever that candidate’s message might be, it has to fit the concerns and well-being of the people in that area without losing sight of larger policy that makes sense, both economically and environmentally.

  10. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/22/2017 - 04:38 pm.

    It won’t be easy….

    The simplified “D” message:

    “You have grievances and we offer a kumbayah pulling together to make things better.”

    The simplified “R” message:

    “You have grievances and we offer finding who to blame and screwing them to make things better.”

    The latter is a simple and powerful message for the unquestioning masses. It is best illustrated by West Virginia. Few states have a higher % of people dependent on the federal programs long championed by the “Ds” yet went almost 2:1 for Trump. They will vote against their own self interest to gain the emotional pleasure of screwing their perceived adversaries.

    I am not sure how that is beaten back….

  11. Submitted by joe smith on 06/22/2017 - 07:32 pm.

    Having a platform that regular working folks can get

    behind would help Dems. I see the Democratic Party is now saying they need to change from identity politics to issues that actually affect people who vote. I think it will take another election cycle to make them change, been the party of identity politics for 10-12 years now, hard to change.

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