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.