Democrats still hunt­ing for a path to re­take power

Tough loss in Ge­or­gia re­news ques­tions within the party.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Evan Halper and David Lauter

WASH­ING­TON — As bat­tered Democrats as­sess their loss in Tues­day’s Ge­or­gia House race, they are find­ing that the path back to power, which they hoped had been opened up by voter dis­con­tent with Pres­i­dent Trump, is full of tricky ob­sta­cles.

The loss in Ge­or­gia was bit­ter, af­ter Democrats, in the most ex­pen­sive House race ever, in­vested tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in a po­lit­i­cal new­comer and mil­len­nial, Jon Os­soff.

Finger-point­ing was im­me­di­ate. Blame fell on House Demo­cratic leader Nancy Pelosi, on the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, on the cau­tious neo­phyte can­di­date. The com­plaints about mud­dled strat­egy by the party were ex­ac­er­bated by the re­sults from the spe­cial elec­tion in South Carolina on the same day, a race that Wash­ing­ton had all but ig­nored. The Demo­crat there came closer to vic­tory than Os­soff.

But even as Trump crowed about the fail­ure of Democrats to win a sin­gle spe­cial elec­tion in a GOP district since he was elected, non­par­ti­san an­a­lysts said the re­turns in all those races, in­clud­ing the one in Ge­or­gia, should trou­ble him. The ex­cite­ment and fer­vor are not on his side. In dis­tricts where Repub­li­cans have long been all but guar­an­teed vic­tory, they have lost con­sid­er­able ground. Their ad­van­tage at the polls in dis­tricts in Ge­or­gia, Kansas, Mon­tana and South Carolina has shrunk in sev­eral cases by more than 20 points com­pared with races be­fore Trump was elected.

And spe­cial elec­tions can mis­lead. Repub­li­cans lost seven such races in a row af­ter Pres­i­dent Obama was elected in 2008, in­clud­ing a

costly bat­tle for what seemed a vul­ner­a­ble Penn­syl­va­nia House seat for which the GOP mo­bi­lized much as Democrats did in Ge­or­gia. Af­ter de­feat in that race, the Repub­li­cans looked lost — un­til they rode tea party mo­men­tum just months later to pick up 63 seats and take con­trol of the House in the 2010 midterm elec­tion.

Some Repub­li­cans who were in­volved then are warn­ing their col­leagues not to take too much com­fort now.

One big chal­lenge for Democrats is that all the en­thu­si­asm on their side sparked a coun­ter­re­ac­tion among Ge­or­gia vot­ers. The res­i­dents of heav­ily Repub­li­can suburbs north of At­lanta who went to the polls this week are not wild about Trump — he car­ried their district by less than two points — but enough of them clearly re­sented the move by na­tional Democrats to make an ex­am­ple out of the re­gion.

If that trend con­tin­ues, Democrats will have trou­ble pick­ing up seats. When Democrats had a wave of pick­ups in 2006, it was due in large part to their vot­ers be­ing mo­ti­vated and Repub­li­cans stay­ing home. The op­po­site hap­pened in 2010, when the GOP took con­trol of the House in part be­cause Democrats didn’t show up to vote.

The party is strain­ing to hit on a mes­sage that mo­ti­vates vot­ers with­out ir­ri­tat­ing dis­af­fected Repub­li­cans to the point where they come to the polls just to vote against the Demo­crat run­ning.

The Ge­or­gia race did noth­ing to solve the in­ter­nal de­bate rag­ing among Democrats about how hard to go af­ter Trump in their cam­paigns. Os­soff avoided at­tack­ing him.

“He tried to run as an in­de­pen­dent, as a neu­tral, al­most non­par­ti­san can­di­date, to de-em­pha­size the party la­bel,” said Ker­win Swint, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Ken­ne­saw State Univer­sity. But in do­ing so, Swint said, “you’re go­ing to turn off a lot of your base. That’s the prob­lem. You have to do it on a district-by-district ba­sis. There’s no magic blue­print or any­thing. What works for this district may be of lim­ited help next year.”

A stronger can­di­date than Os­soff might have been bet­ter po­si­tioned to thread that nee­dle. Os­soff ’s re­sume was thin. He had no po­lit­i­cal ac­com­plish­ments. He grew up in the area but spent much of his short ca­reer on Capi­tol Hill. He came off more Ge­orge­town than Ge­or­gia. He did not even live in the district — though he grew up there — opt­ing to keep the apart­ment he and his girl­friend share in At­lanta.

All that made it easy for Repub­li­cans and out­side con­ser­va­tive groups to convince vot­ers the can­di­date was a cre­ation of Pelosi, who is re­viled by vot­ers in the district.

This, af­ter all, is the district that elected Trump’s Health and Hu­man Ser­vices sec­re­tary, Tom Price, and, be­fore him, GOP fire­brand Newt Gin­grich.

“Democrats’ bold claims to com­pete for GOP-held sub­ur­ban seats blew up in their faces in Ge­or­gia,” said Jack Pan­dol, a spokesman for the Na­tional Repub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee who said Democrats will have just as hard a time in 2018 in the GOP-held dis­tricts Trump lost in Orange County as they did in Ge­or­gia. “Run­ning cookie-cut­ter, na­tion­al­ized cam­paigns … won’t cut it.”

But in next year’s midterm elec­tion, Democrats will be field­ing can­di­dates in many dis­tricts who have much deeper experience and im­pres­sive re­sumes.

Many have al­ready started to step for­ward to run in dis­tricts, in­clud­ing those in Orange County and other sub­ur­ban ar­eas around the coun­try, where the ero­sion of GOP sup­port has been more in­tense than in the At­lanta suburbs.

There are 70 seats cur­rently held by Repub­li­cans in which the district’s makeup of the elec­torate is more fa­vor­able to Democrats than it was for Os­soff, Demo­cratic an­a­lyst Steve Schale said in a blog post. The loss in Ge­or­gia high­lighted how Democrats need to re­dou­ble their ef­forts to find top-tier can­di­dates for them, he said.

It is a point not lost on the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. In a post­mortem memo Wed­nes­day, the com­mit­tee’s chair, Rep. Ben Ray Lu­jan of New Mex­ico, stressed a re­cruit­ment push, vow­ing to “take the time to find peo­ple who fit their dis­tricts.”

Many of those can­di­dates will be bat­tle-tested in a way Os­soff wasn’t, as they will prob­a­bly have to en­dure an ex­tended pri­mary cam­paign. In Os­soff’s case, the field was all but cleared for him by the es­tab­lish­ment.

Still, the re­sults in Ge­or­gia give Democrats much to worry about.

De­spite Trump’s dis­mal fa­vor­a­bil­ity rat­ings over­all, the Ge­or­gia elec­tion re­in­forced that the pres­i­dent re­mains pop­u­lar with Repub­li­cans. His ap­proval rat­ing within his party is stay­ing steady in the mid-80s in most polls, although a few re­cent sur­veys have shown a steeper de­cline.

Prospects for Democrats win­ning back the House prob­a­bly will be strongly in­flu­enced by whether Trump’s sup­port within his own party be­gins to wane, as was true for Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush at the time of the last Demo­cratic wave elec­tion a decade ago.

Lu­jan sug­gested that Trump is headed in the same di­rec­tion, not­ing in his memo that the pres­i­dent’s ap­proval rat­ing is par­tic­u­larly poor in the bat­tle­field dis­tricts tar­geted by Democrats and that the party of first-term pres­i­dents loses 28 seats on av­er­age in the midterm elec­tion — four more than Democrats need to take the House.

But it is all cold com­fort to Democrats this week. “We have our work cut out for us,” Lu­jan ad­mit­ted.

John Bazemore As­so­ci­ated Press

KAREN HAN­DEL’S elec­tion vic­tory Tues­day keeps Ge­or­gia’s 6th Con­gres­sional District in the Repub­li­can col­umn. The Democrats’ ro­bust na­tional ef­fort to win the seat may have worked against them.

David Gold­man As­so­ci­ated Press

SOME OF the blame for the Demo­cratic de­feat fell on Jon Os­soff, the party’s neo­phyte can­di­date.

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