There is no other way to say it: Tuesday night was a disaster for the national Democratic Party.
No one is buying any spin. For months Democratic leaders told the nation and their own supporters that all the anti-Trump energy witnessed in the rallies and those poor Trump approval ratings would be great news for Democrats at the ballot box. They said not to pay attention to the earlier special elections where Republicans had huge advantages and Democrats didn’t run the best candidates.
The contest for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s old Congressional seat in Georgia was the one to watch, and progressives dumped their wallets into funding it. Sure, Republicans have won the Congressional district since the Carter administration. But the thing is that the Democrats are increasingly posting strong showings in highly educated districts like this one. Not to mention that Hillary Clinton came close to winning here last November.
Of course, with Republican Karen Handel winning on Tuesday night, it’s clear that Democrats still have major problems on their hands. Here’s why:
1. They threw everything into Georgia and it wasn’t close
Probably the most humiliating thing about the Georgia loss is that tactically there wasn’t much else they could have done. Yes, it would have been nice if their candidate, Jon Ossoff, wasn’t a baby-faced 30-year-old who didn’t technically live in the district. Yes, it would have been helpful if he had a positive message of his own, and not just an anti-Trump one.
But Ossoff raised more money than any other candidate running for Congress in the history of the United States. He ran endless numbers of television ads. He had thousands of volunteers that came in to campaign for him from across the country. Even more of them were making phone calls for him from wherever they lived. On the campaign trail he didn’t make any real damaging verbal mistakes.
And yet in contest that Democrats called a referendum on Trump, Handel’s 4-point win over Ossoff was 1.5 percentage points higher than Trump’s victory there last November.
2. They fought the wrong race
Adding to Democratic frustrations Tuesday night was the logic that they may have focused too heavily on the wrong race. The real surprise of the night was just how competitive another special election held Tuesday — that one in South Carolina — had become. The South Carolina race, in a district to replace Trump’s budget chief, could have used more attention.
Yes, in South Carolina the Republican ultimately won, but he did so by just 3 percentage points. This contest wasn’t even supposed to be close, and yet the loss there was less extreme than the one in Georgia.
There are many Democrats saying that spending in Georgia had reached its saturation point weeks if not months ago. Had the party instead sent more of its dollars to South Carolina, it just might have snuck in an upset.
3. The wounds of the 2016 primary are back
When there’s a win, everyone takes the credit. When there’s a loss, everyone starts pointing fingers.
So it was with Tuesday night that the blame game started immediately after it was clear they had lost both seats, particularly the one in Georgia. The Democratic Party still hasn’t found a way to come together after the divisions created in the 2016 presidential primary between Clinton and Bernie Sanders. These new loses only re-opened these wounds.
Liberal groups like Vermont-based Democracy for America repeated lines so familiar, they could have come after Clinton’s loss in the general election.
“The same, tired centrist Democratic playbook that has come up short cycle after cycle will not suffice,” DFA chairman Jim Dean said in a statement.
Meanwhile those from the Clinton wing only reaffirmed their commitment that these elections are hard to win. Now is not the time, they said, to move even further left in picking Democratic nominees from the so-called Sanders wing of the party.
It is not a matter of who is correct. The real point is that after Tuesday night, Democrats are right back to where they were in November.James Pindell can be reached at James.Pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.