WASHINGTON — Twin defeats in the Georgia and South Carolina special House elections set off paroxysms of angst and second-guessing among Democrats on Wednesday, revealing a party confused by the political landscape and struggling to come up with a fresh message.
The Republican victories gave President Trump and company a four-for-four sweep in defending special election seats since he assumed office. The results also showed that a chaotic and scandal-plagued presidency has not ushered in a new political alchemy, where red districts would easily turn blue. Party affiliation still matters deeply, meaning that Republican voters are not abandoning local candidates, even if some have soured on Trump.
The takeaway: No matter how much it spends, even amid an unfolding White House scandal, the Democratic Party’s goal of flipping 24 House seats to regain the majority in 2018 will be difficult — especially if opponents can continue to successfully paint them as elitist defenders of an out-of-touch Washington establishment.
“The road back to a Democratic House majority will be long and hard,” said Ben Ray Luján, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in a memo to representatives that laid out his case for staying the course.
But other Democrats, including Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, called for a change in strategy, saying the losses should be a “wake-up” for a party that needs to appeal to more centrist voters. In an interview, Moulton said that an increasing number of Democratic House legislators have told him that they share his view.
“As a party, we’ve grown a little bit tired. As a party, we’ve grown a bit out of touch,” said Moulton, who was among a band of rebellious House Democrats last year who opposed returning House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to her post. “Leadership has got to take responsibility. That means explaining what went wrong and, more importantly, how is next time going to be different.”
His comments came after another tough post-election morning for Democrats. In a suburban Atlanta district, Republican Karen Handel beat newcomer Jon Ossoff in a special election. In South Carolina, Ralph Norman, a pro-Trump Republican, won his race Tuesday, too. Their victories followed earlier Republican special election wins in Montana and Kansas.
Even so, with a special counsel investigating Trump’s campaign and the constant spate of divisive policies from the White House, the donor base of the Democratic Party is energized in the age of Trump, as evidenced by the $23 million spent on the race in Georgia. Activism has skyrocketed, too. What’s unclear is whether Democrats have the candidates, and the message, to translate that money and national interest into electoral victories.
Representative Joseph Kennedy III of Brookline, a member of the Democratic campaign committee’s leadership team, chose to take the glass-half-full approach to the Georgia wreckage.
“The level of grass-roots engagement and activism we are seeing in these special elections is unprecedented,” Kennedy said in a statement. “Our job in the months ahead is to effectively channel that energy and offer voters a clear, compelling agenda that invests in working families and resists President Trump’s divisive policies.”
Representative Katherine Clark, the Melrose Democrat who is a lead recruiter for the Democrats in the 2018 election cycle, said she was disheartened by Tuesday’s results, but not dismayed. Clark said she was encouraged by the energy that surrounded the special election — from the scores of volunteers to the millions of dollars in donations.
“When Jon Ossoff nearly won outright in the primary [in Georgia], this became a national race,” Clark said. “It went to a different level. But that’s not going to be true across the country when we have every member of Congress up in 2018. Messages are going to be very much localized and that’s where our candidates are going to win.”
The disagreements, even among the all-Democrat Massachusetts delegation, showed the degree to which Tuesday’s elections did little to resolve the central question for the party in 2018: “What is a winning formula for the Trump-era Democrat?”
Ossoff, the Democratic candidate in Georgia’s Sixth District, often avoided direct criticism of Trump, choosing instead to focus on a positive message of economic centrism and civility. His reward: about the same proportion of the vote in the district — 48 percent — as Hillary Clinton earned in November.
Adam Green, cofounder of the large liberal group Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Democratic candidates must be more bold going forward.
“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,” Green said.
Republicans, on the other hand, were ecstatic Wednesday, as they woke up to another successful election. The party, already with great advantages in Congress, the White House, and state legislatures across the country, got an added bonus this week when it became clear that Trump’s woes, so far, may not be as damaging to the party in individual states as many feared.
Trump himself celebrated the election victories on Twitter, saying, “All the Fake News, all the money spent = 0.’’ Michael Aherns of the Republican National Committee said, “There’s no other way to view the [Democrats] but as limping into 2018.”
“The Democrats spent over $30M for Jon Ossoff to get the same 47% that Hillary Clinton did in GA-6 in 2016 – and to underperform his 48.1% in the April primary,” Aherns said in an e-mail.
But Whit Ayers, a Republican pollster in Washington, cautioned the party against taking too many lessons from the special races. Yes, Democrats would have received a jolt of energy had they been able to flip one of the four deeply red House districts that had special elections this year, but it was always unlikely. Plus, Democrats will have better chances of victory in some of the 2018 districts in more moderate states, such as California.
“My main takeaway is that the GOP can win in a challenging environment,” Ayers said in an interview. “The president structures a broader environment but doesn’t determine the outcome of the political races. . . . It all depends on which candidates are nominated and what campaigns they run.”
In this vein, the results from last night’s race in South Carolina were somewhat encouraging for Democrats. In that election, which drew less attention and less money than its counterpart in Georgia, the Democratic challenger greatly outperformed expectations and almost pulled off a historic upset.
Green’s progressive advocacy group published an analysis Tuesday night aimed at encouraging the group’s base, even considering the losses. According to its data, if Democrats in all House districts gain 15 percentage points as they did in Tuesday night’s losing effort in South Carolina — certainly a pie-in-the-sky scenario — the party could gain nearly 90 seats in the House.
Herndon can be reached at email@example.com.