The morning after an election is always a time for poring over the entrails of the campaign, and Wednesday the Democrats spent the whole day trying to figure out how they could spend $25 million on a special election in Georgia, and still lose.
The short answer, as always, is that the loser was trying to sell something a majority of voters didn’t want to buy. Georgia was one of the most reliable Democratic states barely more than a decade or so ago, and is now ruby red with pockets of Democratic strength. In this week’s election, Georgia voters, many of whom are skeptical of President Trump and his tweets, demonstrated they nevertheless want more from an opposition than rants and adolescent rage over losing an election.
Karen Handel, the winner of the seat representing a district ranging over the northern suburbs of Atlanta, looks and talks like a kindly grandmother. She was the loser of several statewide races before she was elected secretary of state, a title considerably less grand than it sounds. Jon Ossoff, the man she defeated, is only 30 (and sometimes looks 16), a pleasant fellow with no political record who was picked by the Democrats a little before his time. He inherited a national following because he isn’t Donald Trump. On Tuesday, that was not enough.
Republicans lately have been treated kindly by two prominent Democratic ladies without actually meaning to. One of President Trump’s electoral strengths was that he is not Hillary Clinton, and Tuesday in Georgia the voters said they don’t want a congressman who has been hanging out with Nancy Pelosi.
A decade of Republican campaigning against Mrs. Pelosi has made her the gift to Republicans that keeps on giving. She’s the ultimate expression of “San Francisco values,” and nobody’s buying those anywhere but in San Francisco. “It’s pretty difficult to undo the demonization of anyone,” says Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey of Tuesday’s result.
The demonization of Donald Trump, however, has not worked in any of the four special elections held so far to replace Republicans who moved on to other jobs. The Grand Old Party has now won special elections in Kansas, Montana, Georgia and Tuesday in South Carolina, where the Democrat did come close enough to rattle the Republicans. Close, but no cigar.
The national Democratic machinery had hoped a victory in Georgia would give the party momentum for next year’s midterm congressional elections, where it needs to win a net of 24 seats to regain control of the House, and 3 to wrest control of the Senate. The Tuesday results demonstrated forcefully that money alone won’t do it. The Ossoff campaign said it had knocked on half-a-million doors, hired a hundred staffers, recruited 12,000 volunteers and spent more than $11 million on television advertisements, some of them on national television and some of them on local radio and television.
What The New York Times called “a demoralizing special-election defeat,” deepened a wide divide within the Democratic Party between those who are wary of trying to sell an undisguised left-wing agenda, and those who know better. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio says the Democratic “brand” has become “toxic” because voters see Democrats as “not being able to connect with the issues they care about. Our brand is worse than Trump’s.”
Some Democrats console themselves with “moral victories,” having come close in a couple of the special elections. But others understand that only the real thing counts, but when your brand stinks, life is not easy.