Is Anti-Trump Message a Winning Strategy for Democrats?

An upcoming race in suburban Atlanta will test the idea that the party can take back Congress by turning an election into a referendum on the president.

Then-Rep. Tom Price (right) at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Jan. 24.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Feb. 21, 2017, 8 p.m.

The emer­ging view among many Demo­crats is that Pres­id­ent Trump is so un­pop­u­lar, even in many GOP-friendly areas, that their can­did­ates simply need to run against the White House to win back con­trol of Con­gress. As long as the party pro­motes cha­ris­mat­ic, tele­gen­ic re­cruits, the think­ing goes, their ideo­logy won’t mat­ter a whit. Nu­mer­ous out­side groups are pop­ping up, de­clar­ing them­selves part of the “res­ist­ance” against the White House. These par­tis­ans ar­gue that GOP ob­struc­tion un­der Pres­id­ent Obama helped Re­pub­lic­ans win con­trol of the House, Sen­ate, and pres­id­ency. Now Demo­crats feel they can use sim­il­arly ag­gress­ive tac­tics and do the same.

The emer­ging view in Re­pub­lic­an circles is that par­tis­an loy­alty is strong enough that GOP can­did­ates will be able to win in states and dis­tricts where the party holds a nu­mer­ic­al ad­vant­age. They point to the res­ults of last year’s pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, in which con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans were able to dis­tin­guish their own brand from Trump’s blustery pop­u­lism. They ar­gue that the Demo­crat­ic Party is so dom­in­ated by its left wing that even anti-Trump Re­pub­lic­ans will con­tin­ue to vote for their party’s con­gres­sion­al can­did­ates, so long as they run on a tra­di­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive agenda.

These two ar­gu­ments will col­lide in an up­com­ing spe­cial elec­tion in sub­urb­an At­lanta for the seat of just-con­firmed Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Tom Price—the first con­gres­sion­al elec­tion dur­ing Trump’s pres­id­ency. A lengthy roster of Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats are vy­ing to win a once-solidly Re­pub­lic­an dis­trict which has be­come highly com­pet­it­ive in the age of Trump. Nestled in up­scale Fulton and Cobb counties, the dis­trict is filled with af­flu­ent Re­pub­lic­ans work­ing for For­tune 500 com­pan­ies like Home De­pot and Coca Cola. Trump car­ried the dis­trict by only 2 points in 2016, a 20-point drop-off from Mitt Rom­ney’s win­ning mar­gin four years earli­er.

On pa­per, this elec­tion should be a golden op­por­tun­ity for Demo­crats to make polit­ic­al in­roads. The dis­trict is filled with the type of col­lege-edu­cated voters who have grav­it­ated away from Trump—in­clud­ing in­de­pend­ents who don’t have strong par­tis­an loy­al­ties but tend to vote Re­pub­lic­an. El­ev­en Re­pub­lic­ans will be fight­ing against each oth­er on an all-party primary bal­lot, mak­ing it likely the even­tu­al GOP stand­ard-bear­er will be wounded head­ing in­to an ex­pec­ted run­off. Trump’s pres­id­ency has got­ten off to a rocky start, giv­ing any Demo­crat plenty of ma­ter­i­al to work with.

But the early Demo­crat­ic fa­vor­ite in the race is about as awk­ward a fit for this par­tic­u­lar dis­trict as Demo­crats could find. Jon Os­soff, a self-de­scribed in­vest­ig­at­ive film­maker, is a 30-year-old former na­tion­al se­cur­ity staffer for lib­er­al Rep. Hank John­son. His can­did­acy has been en­dorsed by Rep. John Lewis and cham­pioned by the lib­er­al Daily Kos web­site, which has helped him raise nearly $1 mil­lion for his cam­paign—a re­mark­able sum for an ob­scure can­did­ate in an off-year House elec­tion. He’s fa­cing an­oth­er Demo­crat, former state Sen. Ron Slot­in, whose more-mod­er­ate cre­den­tials are passé at a time when his party is look­ing for con­front­a­tion­al voices.

Os­soff fills the con­front­a­tion­al role to a tee. In case his cam­paign mes­sage wasn’t clear, his web­site is em­blazoned with the head­line: “Geor­gia: Stand Up To Trump.” Mak­ing the race about Trump is help­ing him raise his pro­file and bring­ing in loads of cam­paign cash. But money isn’t a sub­sti­tute for a mes­sage that can win over Re­pub­lic­ans who will find Os­soff’s down-the-line lib­er­al views as prob­lem­at­ic as Trump’s pop­u­lism. Demo­crat­ic act­iv­ists may be en­er­gized by Os­soff’s broad­sides against the pres­id­ent, but they will end up dis­ap­poin­ted if he doesn’t meld them with a cent­rist mes­sage de­signed to at­tract dis­af­fected Re­pub­lic­ans.

Re­pub­lic­ans are also poised to test how deep par­tis­an­ship runs, even among con­ser­vat­ive voters who aren’t thrilled with Trump. A few of the 11 Re­pub­lic­ans who filed to run are latch­ing onto Trump’s coat­tails, most prom­in­ently Trump cam­paign sur­rog­ate Bruce LeV­ell. But most of the can­did­ates are con­ven­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans who have long been in­volved in Geor­gia polit­ics. The best-known Re­pub­lic­an in the race, former Sec­ret­ary of State Kar­en Han­del, was an un­suc­cess­ful gubernat­ori­al and con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate. State Sen. Jud­son Hill, the first can­did­ate to enter the race, has a polit­ic­al base in Cobb County and is a for­mid­able fun­draiser. Former state Sen. Dan Moody is close to former Gov. Sonny Per­due, and has enough per­son­al wealth to fin­ance his cam­paign.

If Demo­crats can even run com­pet­it­ively in this dis­trict, it would be a sign that an unadul­ter­ated anti-Trump mes­sage can pay di­vidends. But if the next Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee per­forms like Price—who nev­er won less than 62 per­cent of the vote in his sev­en cam­paigns—it will send a sig­nal that simply be­ing the op­pos­i­tion isn’t enough to win back con­trol of Con­gress.

“If you have an old white guy who’s hard right-wing, pro-Trump, anti-Muslim, and anti-gay mar­riage run­ning against a wo­man who comes across like Michelle Nunn, that’s the dy­nam­ic that could be a prob­lem for us,” said one GOP strategist track­ing the race. “But you’re not go­ing to have that dy­nam­ic.”

COR­REC­TION: Os­soff’s cam­paign spokes­man said Os­soff voted for Hil­lary Clin­ton in Geor­gia’s 2016 pres­id­en­tial primary. This story ori­gin­ally wrote he backed Bernie Sanders.

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