- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2017

ATLANTA — After losing another special election that party leaders had hoped would signal a rebuke of the Trump presidency, Democrats on Wednesday cast about for someone or something to blame: from Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the House Democrats, to ill-managed campaigns to candidates who were too liberal — or not liberal enough.

Voters in Georgia, though, who dealt the latest blow to Democrats this week, said the problem is much simpler: The party just isn’t fielding good candidates.

Jon Ossoff, the party’s offering in Tuesday’s special congressional election in Georgia, was a 30-year-old electoral novice who didn’t even live in the district, and whose chief experience in his short adult life was as a staffer on Capitol Hill. Last month’s congressional race in Montana, meanwhile, featured a cowboy poet whose colorful past weighed down his campaign.

Both men lost races that Democrats and their allies had deemed winnable — blowing tens of millions of party dollars in the process.

“Run for something at least somewhere where you live,” Mary Julve, 52, said as she voted Tuesday in nearby Roswell, decrying Mr. Ossoff’s candidacy. “Maybe if he would have lived here a little longer at least, I think maybe that would have swayed us a little more.

“There is no vested interest,” she said.

Democrats have gone 0-for-4 in special elections this year. Each of the four congressional seats came open after a House Republican left to join the Trump administration, and in three of the races — Georgia, Montana and Kansas — Democrats appeared to have a clear chance of winning.

Each of the Democratic Party candidates ran firmly against Mr. Trump, urging voters to send someone to Washington to act as a check on Republicans and to deliver a powerful statement about the strength of the anti-Trump resistance.

But after the stinging defeats in South Carolina and Georgia, Democrats and liberal pressure groups are searching for what went wrong.

“‘Hope’ is not a strategy, and ‘resisting’ is not a plan,” said D. Taylor, president of Unite Here, a labor union acting in progressive causes. “Millions of Americans are desperate to be led by political leaders who stand for something, are willing to take risks, and are willing to tell the truth and engage Americans where they live. That just isn’t happening.”

Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America, a progressive political action committee that deployed staff to Georgia and invested $65,000 in the race, blamed “unforced errors” by the party and the Ossoff campaign.

Democrats, he said, need to tilt further to the left and take that message directly to voters.

“Defeating Republicans in districts that they have traditionally held requires doing something drastically different than establishment Democrats have done before — specifically, running on a bold progressive vision and investing heavily in direct voter contact to expand the electorate,” he said. “The same tired centrist Democratic playbook that has come up short cycle after cycle will not suffice.”

Other liberals, though, saw reason to be optimistic. They said Democrats managed to improve their performance in each of the competitive districts this year from how they did in those same seats last year.

They said the fact that Democrats fielded liberal candidates endorsed by the likes of Sen. Bernard Sanders helped.

“The best way for Democrats to maximize gains in 2018 — especially in purple and red districts — is to harness the power of the resistance and field candidates who proudly challenge power on behalf of the little guy,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Gone are the days of Blue Dogs who actively campaign as Republicans.”

Emily’s List, which backs pro-choice Democratic candidates, also saw the Georgia race as a good sign. The group said 71 Republican-held House seats lean more Democratic than Georgia’s 6th Congressional District and each of those could be an opportunity.

At the White House, President Trump mocked Democrats’ losing streak, while Republican groups basked in victory and said their strategy of tying Democratic candidates to national party leaders such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California is working.

“The truth is, voters across the country find what Nancy Pelosi represents to be out of the mainstream, so while candidates matter, their ideas are far more important,” said Courtney Alexander, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee that invested $7 million in the Georgia race.

Voters in Georgia said the anti-Pelosi message resonated in the conservative-leaning district, reminding some wavering Republicans about the stakes in the election.

Even some Democrats acknowledged that Mrs. Pelosi is hurting their chances in deep-red districts.

Joe Cunningham, a Democrat who wants to challenge Republican Rep. Mark Sanford in South Carolina next fall, announced his break with the longtime party leader.

“The Democratic Party needs new leadership now. If elected, I will not vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker. Time to move forward and win again,” he said in a Twitter post.

Tyler Law, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, predicted better luck for his party next year.

He said the DCCC is optimistic about the crop of potential candidates lining up to run in the midterm elections, which traditionally test a sitting president’s popularity.

“We’ve already seen a huge increase in recruitment this cycle,” Mr. Law said. “Incredible candidates are stepping up to run across the largest battlefield in a decade, and frankly, that isn’t determined at all by what happens in deep-red special elections.”

Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report, said the DCCC never wanted to play in Montana or Kansas, but the left wing pushed it into investing in those races.

“In special elections, because they pop up unexpectedly, often parties are at the mercy of whoever pops up,” he said before turning to the Georgia 6th District race. “I don’t think the DCCC recruited Ossoff. They generally don’t go after relatively unaccomplished 30-year-olds who don’t live in the district.

“But when you have few politicians in a district from your party and an unexpected special elections comes up, you sort of get what generally walks in the door,” he said.

Sally Persons contributed to this report.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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