AGAINST THE GRAIN

In Georgia, Democrats Learn That Opposing Trump Is Not Enough

Jon Ossoff came close to achieving an impressive victory in a Republican district—but fell several points short. To win back the House, Democrats need to do more than come close.

Democratic House candidate Jon Ossoff talks with supporters at a campaign field office on Tuesday in Marietta, Ga.
AP Photo/John Bazemore
April 19, 2017, 12:19 a.m.

Demo­crat­ic act­iv­ists spent the last month pour­ing their time, en­ergy, and pas­sion be­hind a 30-year-old film­maker, Jon Os­soff, who rep­res­en­ted the hopes and dreams of the anti-Trump Left. They turned the low-key former Hill staffer in­to a polit­ic­al celebrity, helped him raise re­cord sums of money for a House race, and even baited Pres­id­ent Trump in­to un­leash­ing a tweet­storm on the off-year con­gres­sion­al con­test.

The re­turn on their in­vest­ment: a can­did­ate who turned in a sol­id, un­spec­tac­u­lar per­form­ance that places him in a run­off against former Geor­gia Sec­ret­ary of State Kar­en Han­del on June 20. Os­soff fin­ished sev­er­al points shy of the 50 per­cent needed to avoid a run­off. Han­del nearly doubled the sup­port of her closest Re­pub­lic­an rival, a re­spect­able show­ing for the GOP polit­ic­al vet­er­an.

In the end, voters in this af­flu­ent sub­urb­an At­lanta dis­trict proved the en­dur­ing power of par­tis­an­ship. The over­all Re­pub­lic­an share of the vote was in line with what Trump won last Novem­ber. Os­soff barely im­proved on Hil­lary Clin­ton’s per­form­ance in the dis­trict, des­pite out­spend­ing the op­pos­i­tion. Re­pub­lic­ans turned out in healthy num­bers to vote on Elec­tion Day, neut­ral­iz­ing the high­er-than-usu­al Demo­crat­ic turnout in early vot­ing.

Pres­id­en­tial polit­ics loomed large in this elec­tion, with Os­soff run­ning an ex­pli­citly anti-Trump cam­paign and the pres­id­ent per­son­ally en­ga­ging in the race with a slew of mes­sages de­signed to ex­cite the Re­pub­lic­an faith­ful. Trump wasn’t shy about mak­ing the race about him­self, even though his ap­prov­al num­bers are un­der­whelm­ing in the tra­di­tion­ally con­ser­vat­ive dis­trict. The pres­id­ent re­cor­ded a rob­ocall and sent out four tweets from his per­son­al ac­count this week, at­tack­ing Os­soff as “su­per-lib­er­al” and ur­ging Re­pub­lic­ans in the dis­trict to vote.

All sides can find some solace in Tues­day night’s res­ults. Os­soff’s show­ing gives him a fight­ing chance in the up­com­ing run­off. Just get­ting with­in strik­ing dis­tance of a ma­jor­ity is a sign of a fired-up Demo­crat­ic base. If the party can sus­tain that en­ergy in­to 2018, it will be a power­ful weapon in the midterm elec­tions across the coun­try.

Re­pub­lic­ans were able to use their tra­di­tion­al play­book, paint­ing Os­soff as a down-the-line lib­er­al to stunt his mo­mentum. If that strategy works in the midterms, they’ll be well-po­si­tioned to hold their House ma­jor­ity. Demo­crats need to win these types of di­verse, af­flu­ent Re­pub­lic­an dis­tricts to re­gain con­trol of the lower cham­ber.

Des­pite his bumpy first 90 days, Trump can claim cred­it for boost­ing GOP turnout to healthy midterm levels. The pres­id­ent isn’t par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar in this dis­trict—Re­pub­lic­an polling pegged his fa­vor­ab­il­ity just slightly above wa­ter—but he helped rally the rank and file. He can now boast that he stopped Os­soff from get­ting a quick tick­et to Con­gress. All told, it doesn’t look as if many typ­ic­al Re­pub­lic­an voters—even those who don’t care for Trump—were in­clined to vote for a Demo­crat to send a mes­sage.

If there’s any­thing that should con­cern Demo­crats, it’s that they know what they’re against but not what they’re for. They’ve mastered the art of mo­bil­iz­a­tion in the age of Trump, but are still strug­gling to per­suade win­nable voters. Os­soff’s cam­paign ads struck all the right notes, por­tray­ing him as a fisc­al con­ser­vat­ive and a prag­mat­ist who’s tough on na­tion­al se­cur­ity. But on the stump, Os­soff nev­er ar­tic­u­lated much bey­ond bland Demo­crat­ic talk­ing points.

With their pumped-up base, Demo­crats should have a pro­duct­ive midterm elec­tion. But to cap­ture a House ma­jor­ity, they’ll need to pick off Re­pub­lic­an-friendly seats with can­did­ates who can re­as­sure GOP-lean­ing voters with a mod­er­ate mes­sage. Bal­an­cing the en­ergy of the pro­gress­ive act­iv­ists with that sort of prag­mat­ism won’t be an easy task. It can get Demo­crats close to a ma­jor­ity, but like Os­soff, they could end up fall­ing short by only be­ing part of the Trump op­pos­i­tion.

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