Democrats got awfully close last night in two special House elections, one in Georgia-06, the other in SC-05, but Republicans kept their seats in districts that voted for GOP incumbents by more than 20 points in November. Democrats have gone 0-4 in these districts in special elections this year now, and that's prompting some to say that just running against the increasingly unpopular Trump is no longer an option.
To win in 2018, Democrats will have to find opportunities to do better, but it’s certainly an achievable goal. The fact that the district was competitive is a sign that the GOP majority is at risk; the question is simply what can Democrats do to put themselves over the top?
One thing they might want to try is developing a substantive policy agenda to run on. They came close this time, and they’ll just need to put forth an attractive package for voters in the 2018 midterms.
Ossoff, like so many losing Democratic candidates over the years, was brought down fundamentally by arguments grounded in identity politics.
Karen Handel didn’t argue that the Republican Party’s health care bill is a good idea (it’s very unpopular) or that tax cuts for millionaires should be the country’s top economic priority (another policy that polls dismally). Instead, her campaign and its allies buried Ossoff under a pile of what basically amounts to nonsense — stuff about Kathy Griffin, stuff about Samuel L. Jackson, stuff about his home being just over the district line, stuff about him having raised money from out of state — lumped together under the broad heading that he’s an “outsider.”
Much of this was unfair or ridiculous. And the stuff that wasn’t unfair — like the location of his home — is honestly pretty silly. None of this has anything to do with the lives of actual people living in the suburbs of Atlanta or anywhere else.
Ossoff’s team was aware, of course, that the district is not accustomed to voting for Democrats and that he was vulnerable to this kind of attack. They attempted to counter this move by positioning Ossoff as blandly as possible — just a kind of nice guy who doesn’t like Donald Trump — and dissociating him from any hard-edged ideas or themes. It’s a strategy that makes a certain amount of sense, but it also makes it hard to mobilize potential supporters. And by lowering the concrete stakes in the election, it also makes it easier for trivial and pseudo-issues to end up dominating in the end.
I hate to say that Yglesias has a point here, but he does. Outrage will bring Republicans to the polls every time. Democrats need more to bother to show up to vote.
Yes, there's no such thing as a safe seat for the GOP this year, but it still means that Democrats need more than "Trump sucks" to win in a lot of these districts where Republicans have a massive advantage due to gerrymandering.
Still, a district where the GOP won by 20 in November was only 6 now. In a closer district Ossoff would have won. And there are 70 or 80 closer districts out there for next year.