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
Josh Kraushaar
Add to Briefcase
Josh Kraushaar
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.

What We're Following See More »
Deutsche Bank Gave Kushner a $285 Million Loan in October
6 hours ago

"One month before Election Day, Jared Kushner’s real estate company finalized a $285 million loan as part of a refinancing package for its property near Times Square in Manhattan. The loan came at a critical moment. Kushner was playing a key role in the presidential campaign of his father-in-law, Donald Trump. The lender, Deutsche Bank, was negotiating to settle a federal mortgage fraud case and charges from New York state regulators that it aided a possible Russian money-laundering scheme."

Senate Judiciary Sends Questions to Loretta Lynch
2 days ago
Sens. Paul, Cruz, Johnson and Lee Oppose Senate Health Care Bill
3 days ago

The four Senators released a joint statement, saying in part, "There are provisions in this draft that repreesnt an improvement to our current health care system, but it does not appear this draft as written will accomplish the most important promise we made to Americans: to repeal Obamacare and lower their health care costs."

No Comey Tapes
3 days ago

Trump tweeted Thursday afternoon, "With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea whether there are "tapes" or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings."

Senate Healthcare Bill In Trouble?
3 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.