Turns out…money can’t buy you love. Or a House seat in Georgia’s 6th District.
Democrats pulled out all stops in their effort to show that the #Resistance isn’t just about marches and slogans and insulting the president, but also about flipping the House in 2018. They poured tens of millions of dollars into what became the most expensive House race ever, trying to elect 30-year-old nonentity Jon Ossoff to fill the seat of HHS head Tom Price. They cast the race as a referendum on Donald Trump, and a bellwether for 2018. Republicans will be elated with the outcome, and hopeful that both those claims are true.
What is undoubtedly true is this: despising Donald Trump is not much of a platform.
Ossoff, who received gobs of money from outside Georgia and doesn’t even live in the 6th District, started his campaign by exhorting voters to “Make Trump Furious.” But more recently he backed off that attack line, and ran what even the New York Times called a “milquetoast” campaign. He portrayed himself as a centrist, with a platform about as thin as his resume. Apparently he came to realize that those activists sending contributions from LA and New York would not be showing up in the voting booth, and that he had to win the hearts and minds of Georgia Republicans.
Democrats’ eagerness to put Trump in the middle of the race may have been a misstep, but they were swayed by the president’s declining approval ratings and by his narrow victory in the district in November. He won the 6th by only 1.5 percentage points, while Mitt Romney had a 23 point margin four years earlier and Tom Price had been reelected by 24 points last year.
But it turned out that suburban Atlanta’s voters had other things on their minds, including possibly hoping for a candidate better able to serve their interests than the youthful former congressional aide and documentary filmmaker. Despite a torrent of ads casting the election as a way to vent their disapproval of President Trump, the largely Republican district came through for Karen Handel, who has worked her way up through state politics and was a reliable middle-of-the-road candidate.
A win was vital to Democrats, who need to rebuild their demoralized party. They have virtually no chance of retaking the Senate in 2018, given the seats that are in play. Thus, the focus is on reclaiming the House, for which they will need to win 24 seats. So far, they are batting zero. In the just-concluded South Carolina contest, the GOP candidate running to fill the seat of Budget Director Mick Mulvaney won, as expected.
Also, on April 11, Democrats lost the race for Kansas’ 4th District seat, called to replace Mike Pompeo who became head of the CIA. That election initially was written off by Democrats, since Trump had won the district by 27 percentage points. But the declining popularity of Governor Sam Brownback, as well as drooping approval ratings for the president, threw the district into play. The GOP candidate won by only 8,000 votes.
Stung by criticism that they missed an opportunity in Kansas, party gurus turned to the Georgia contest, which for many reasons looked more winnable. Like many southern suburban areas the 6th District has trended more diverse and more liberal since Newt Gingrich held the seat from 1979 to 1999. When Newt represented the northern Atlanta suburbs, the district was 90 percent white; now it is 70 percent white, with blacks and Hispanics each accounting for about 13 percent of the vote. Some 21 percent of the district is foreign-born.
Only five percent of the district lives below the poverty line, as compared to 17 percent state-wide, and 58 percent of voters are college graduates, double Georgia’s average. All those stats worked against President Trump; they favored Jon Ossoff. In the national election, Trump attracted millions of blue collar Democrat voters fed up with the status quo and concerned about the economy. He also won the vote of conservative Republicans opposed to Hillary Clinton. Establishment “moderate” Republicans were among his weakest constituents; those voters didn’t give him a big win in Georgia’s 6th District but they turned out for Karen Handel.
The loss of the Georgia election is devastating for Democrats. There were plenty of reasons to think they might score an upset, and they went for broke. The race became not a referendum on President Trump, but on Democrats’ ability to convert their newfound energy and activism into wins at the ballot box. They failed, and many will wonder if the party’s leadership has what it takes to get them back on track.
Some will question whether, in the aftermath of the 2016 drubbing, Democrats have yet found a message that appeals to voters. Some may also question whether President Trump is really as unpopular as the polls suggest.
The worst possible outcome of this loss will be that Democrats fault Ossoff for running as a centrist. They may decide that only hard left candidates can get the job done, and throw support to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren acolytes in future races. That will be a mistake, virtually guaranteeing that traditional red districts and states stay in GOP hands. The base was engaged in this contest; turnout was high. It simply remains a GOP-heavy district.
And, voters are not yet ready to give up on the Trump agenda. So far, Democrats have offered nothing better.