People all too often miss the forest for the trees, but special elections tend to create the opposite dynamic. People tend to search for national factors and explanations, while simultaneously reading massive significance into the tea leaves.
For many, Scott Brown’s “historic” upset of Martha Coakley suggested that 2010 would be an excellent year for Republicans, but a few months later Democrats held onto a seat in a special election in Pennsylvania to succeed Democratic Congressman John Murtha. One special election win does not make a trend, and even a few might not be enough to form a truly predictive trend.
Nevertheless, there are lessons to be drawn from the recent special election in Georgia, which shattered all previous records for expensive house races in the country. After over $50 million was spent (totaling roughly one hundred dollars for every eligible voter), Republican Karen Handel carried the day over Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Nancy Pelosi is a potent opponent:
Ossoff started his campaign with a call to “make Trump furious,” and that helped propel him to first place in the primary election. However, he fell just short of the 50 percent he needed to become a congressman and avoid the runoff. During the campaign’s second phase, he shifted and studiously avoided mentioning President Donald Trump.
Local news caught onto this, reporting:
Democrat Jon Ossoff often doesn’t mention Donald Trump’s name at campaign events unless pressed by voters or reporters. He doesn’t make much hay about the controversies plaguing the Republican’s young presidency. And he steers well clear of the i-word: impeachment.
Republican grounds, however, did not shy away from portraying Ossoff as a pawn of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In fact, this is the exact same messaging used in other elections, including the recent race for Montana’s at large congressional district. Ossoff’s record-breaking fundraising helped fuel this narrative. In the days leading up to the election, “He reported 7,218 donations from the state of California and 808 donations from Georgia over the past two months, according to the Mercury News. Ossoff had over three thousand donors in the San Francisco Bay area alone, nearly four times as many donors as he had in Georgia.”
The election’s ramifications impacted politics from Washington to California, and Democrats are growing restless once again. Pelosi faced one of her stiffest intraparty challenges in years in November, when Congressman Tim Ryan challenged her for leader of their party, winning over the support of many Democrats, particularly younger ones.
Chuck Todd recently asked, “Can [Democrats] win back the House with Pelosi promising to stay in power?” Pelosi has made it clear that she believes she’ll leave leadership on her own terms, stating, “I’m worth the trouble, quite frankly.” It seems unlikely that Pelosi is going anywhere before the 2018 midterms, so we’ll know soon enough.
High turnout helped Republicans:
Over the course of the election, Ossoff “has gone from unknown documentarian to Democratic cause célèbre,” helping to boost Democratic turnout in the historically Republican district. While it is not an apples-to-apples comparison, it’s helpful to look at what happened the same night in the special election in South Carolina, where Republican Ralph Norman eked out a victory of Democrat Archie Parnell. This race received next to no national attention, and Democrats like South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson believe, “If we had had a scintilla of those resources, the outcome of this election . . . would have been different.”
Meanwhile, the problem Republicans faced was that too many took the election for granted. In Georgia, every voter knew the stakes of the election, but the South Carolina race received so little attention that Republican voters could have decided that voting was not even worth their time.
Republicans were asleep at the switch. Turnout was abysmal. Parnell’s raw vote total, buoyed by the district’s African-American precincts, was 60 percent less than the 5th District’s Democratic nominee last November. Why was the race so close? Because Republican nominee Ralph Norman fared even worse, suffering a 72 percent collapse.
This likely gets to the crux of the matter. It is impossible to know for sure, but it is likely that Democrats drastically overperformed in South Carolina because the election received minimal attention, allowing Democrats to almost take Republicans by surprise. In Georgia, the airwaves were completely saturated, reminding every Republican of the stakes of the election. An analogous situation could be Eric Cantor’s primary defeat, where his ads actually reminded voters that he had a primary opponent.
Democratic divisions on display:
During the runoff, Ossoff tried to play up his moderate credentials, which groups like MoveOn.org attacked in the election’s aftermath:
In the closing weeks of the race, Ossoff and the DCCC missed an opportunity to make Republicans’ attack on health care the key issue, and instead attempted to portray Ossoff as a centrist, focusing on cutting spending and coming out in opposition to Medicare for All. Democrats will not win back power merely by serving as an alternative to Trump and Republicans.
Ossoff did seek to differentiate himself from national Democrats on some issues, such as his reluctance to raise some taxes and his hesitation on single-payer health care. Some liberal groups like Daily Kos endorsed Ossoff nevertheless. Bernie Sanders himself eventually endorsed Ossoff, but only after he made waves by refusing to label Ossoff a “progressive.” Ossoff maintained most Democratic support during the runoff, but the loss exposed the divisions within the party that a win might have temporarily papered over. Tim Ryan stated, “Our brand is toxic,” and Congressman Seth Moulton tweeted that the loss should be a “wake-up call” for Democrats.
Discrediting opponents is not how to win:
One of the first ways this race made national news was when Republicans ran an ad against him called “The Truth Strikes Back,” featuring him dressed as Han Solo from when he was in college. However, Ossoff’s supporters “embrace[d]” the Star Wars theme, claiming that Ossoff was “a new hope” and this election could have been the “revenge of the Sixth [District].” The strategy of discrediting an opponent has been deployed a lot recently, with very little success. Hillary Clinton tried to discredit Donald Trump so thoroughly that her campaign invested resources in Republican states like Texas, Arizona, and Utah. Across the Pond, Theresa May similarly attempted to discredit the dangerously far-Left Jeremy Corbyn by calling him “weak, unstable, and nonsensical.” While the vote share for Conservatives actually increased, May left the election amid speculation that she would be unable to retain her Prime Ministership.
There is no remotely competitive special election on the horizon, so Democrats will be left empty-handed in their quest to pick off seats from Republicans, and plenty of time for their internal conflicts to further divide them.
Matthew Foldi is a staff writer for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.