Democrats Find It’s Risky to Poke the GOP Elephant

The party’s all-out effort in Georgia’s special election drew Republicans to the polls, while an understated campaign in South Carolina almost gave them a stunning upset.

Republican Ralph Norman (left) celebrates with his wife, Elaine, on Tuesday after winning the special election in South Carolina's 5th Congressional District.
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
June 22, 2017, 8 p.m.

There’s an old say­ing that close only counts in horse­shoes and hand gren­ades, and that’s cer­tainly how Demo­crats must feel after los­ing their third and fourth at­tempts of the year to wrestle away Re­pub­lic­an-held seats in spe­cial con­gres­sion­al elec­tions. In fair­ness, the first two shouldn’t fully count against them since the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee was pretty much forced (or shamed) by the lib­er­al net­roots to play in the Kan­sas 4th and Montana at-large con­tests. Party pros saw both races as ex­tremely chal­len­ging giv­en their largely rur­al pop­u­la­tions, which have been the toughest dis­tricts for Demo­crats to crack over the last dec­ade.

Tues­day’s spe­cial elec­tion in Geor­gia’s 6th Dis­trict was the fight Demo­crats hoped to win, even though it’s a Re­pub­lic­an strong­hold. Mitt Rom­ney in 2012 and Tom Price, who held the seat for 12 years, won this up­scale At­lanta sub­urb by two dozen points, but Don­ald Trump beat Hil­lary Clin­ton by only a point and a half there in Novem­ber.

The not-so-secret sauce for Demo­crats is that polls show their party mem­bers are agit­ated and angry about Trump’s elec­tion, and are mo­tiv­ated to do something about it. The Demo­crats thought they would have an ad­vant­age be­cause turnout tends to be lower in midterm and spe­cial elec­tions, and highly mo­tiv­ated voters are more apt to make it to the polls.

A tight race was ex­pec­ted, but the GOP nom­in­ee, former Geor­gia Sec­ret­ary of State Kar­en Han­del, beat Demo­crat Jon Os­soff, a 30-year-old former con­gres­sion­al staffer, by nearly 4 per­cent­age points, 51.9 per­cent to 48.1 per­cent. It turned out that Clin­ton per­formed bet­ter than Os­soff. So what happened?

The blame game is well un­der­way. Some Demo­crats pin the tail on House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, who was the tar­get of a lot of Re­pub­lic­an ads in the race. Amy Wal­ter of The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port cites fig­ures from the ad-track­ing firm CMAG Kantar Me­dia that show 4,653 anti-Pelosi TV ads in the race between April 19 (the start of the run­off cam­paign) and the June 20 bal­lot­ing, at a cost of ap­prox­im­ately $4.7 mil­lion.

Oth­er Demo­crats point to their can­did­ate, a re­l­at­ively un­re­mark­able former Hill staffer who doesn’t live in the dis­trict. He might not have been the best can­did­ate, but of­ten in sur­prise spe­cial elec­tions (Price va­cated the seat sud­denly when Pres­id­ent Trump ap­poin­ted him to his Cab­in­et), parties end up run­ning who­ever walks in the door, and there aren’t a lot of Demo­crat­ic elec­ted of­fi­cials and ex­per­i­enced can­did­ates in the heav­ily Re­pub­lic­an 6th.

Both of these post­mortems have an ele­ment of truth to them. Many on the Left com­plain that Os­soff ran a re­l­at­ively nonideo­lo­gic­al cam­paign that did not con­front Trump or em­phas­ize health care, two po­ten­tial lines of at­tack that would have hit Re­pub­lic­an vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies. In hind­sight, it seems ob­vi­ous that Os­soff could have drawn sharp­er con­trasts, though his cam­paign plaus­ibly thought they would have been in­ef­fect­ive in a largely con­ser­vat­ive dis­trict.

Dav­id Wasser­man, House ed­it­or of The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port, sug­gests there is an­oth­er reas­on that could be im­port­ant as well. Wasser­man points out that on the same night, just one state to the east in South Car­o­lina’s 5th Dis­trict spe­cial elec­tion, Demo­crat­ic tax law­yer Arch­ie Par­nell ran a “sim­il­arly con­cili­at­ory, post-par­tis­an mes­sage” yet “shock­ingly came with­in three points of Re­pub­lic­an Ral­ph Nor­man in a dis­trict that Trump car­ried by 18 points last Novem­ber.” Wasser­man notes that “Par­nell’s near-miss has promp­ted out­rage from act­iv­ists on the Left who be­lieve he got short shrift from the [Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee], DCCC, and party hier­archy. If only the DCCC had para­chuted in­to Sumter in­stead of At­lanta, the think­ing goes, Demo­crats might have ac­tu­ally gained a House seat by now. But the real­ity is Par­nell, much like Demo­crat James Thompson in Kan­sas-04, out­per­formed polls and ex­pect­a­tions pre­cisely be­cause the race flew un­der the radar, not des­pite it.”

Wasser­man goes on to ob­serve that “the di­ver­gent res­ults in Geor­gia-06 and South Car­o­lina-05 prove sat­ur­a­tion-level cam­paigns can back­fire on the party with a baseline en­thu­si­asm ad­vant­age—in this case, Demo­crats. The Geor­gia-06 elec­tion drew over 259,000 voters, an all-time turnout re­cord for a stand-alone spe­cial elec­tion and an amaz­ing 49,000 more than par­ti­cip­ated in the 2014 midterm there. The crush of at­ten­tion mo­tiv­ated GOP voters who might have oth­er­wise stayed home, help­ing Han­del to vic­tory.”

In the South Car­o­lina spe­cial elec­tion, by con­trast, only about 88,000 voted. In short, the great­er Demo­crat­ic in­tens­ity ad­vant­age we see in the polls these days is off­set when voter turnout goes sky-high. Wasser­man points out that Re­pub­lic­ans, led by the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee and the GOP lead­er­ship’s Con­gres­sion­al Lead­er­ship Fund, were able to neut­ral­ize Os­soff’s spend­ing ad­vant­age, drive up his neg­at­ives, and push up turnout, des­pite Trump’s ap­prov­al rat­ings sit­ting in the low 40s in the dis­trict—bet­ter than the na­tion­al av­er­age but still an­em­ic. Han­del’s poll­ster Whit Ayres says the les­son is that “Re­pub­lic­ans can win in a chal­len­ging en­vir­on­ment when they nom­in­ate good can­did­ates and run strong, loc­al­ized cam­paigns. The pres­id­ent struc­tures the over­all en­vir­on­ment, but he does not de­term­ine the out­come of par­tic­u­lar races.“

Tues­day’s res­ults show that the bot­tom has not fallen out for Re­pub­lic­ans, as some had sug­ges­ted. At the same time, Demo­crat­ic spe­cial-elec­tion can­did­ates are out­per­form­ing nor­mal Demo­crat­ic vot­ing pat­terns by 7 to 12 per­cent­age points, something that should alarm Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning for reelec­tion in com­pet­it­ive dis­tricts and states. When a pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al rat­ing is run­ning un­der 40 per­cent, it’s no time for a party to get com­pla­cent.

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