Democrats energized by opposition to President Donald Trump keep saying they like their chances for taking control of Congress in 2018 — and, of course, no one ever won by saying otherwise.
“Despite the loss” in Tuesday’s special House election in Georgia, wrote Ben Ray Lujan, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, “we have a lot to be proud of.” Because “the margin was close” and “the momentum is real.”
Maybe. But the fact that Karen Handel won anyway, in a suburban Atlanta district Trump carried by only 1.5 points, also shows the muscle-building incline Democrats face in attempting to flip the House. And all the focus on whether Nancy Pelosi should stay or go as House minority leader seems largely beside the point.
Handel, the Georgia Republican who beat Democrat Jon Ossoff by 4 points, was not a particularly good candidate. In response to Ossoff’s completely undebatable suggestion that many working people have a hard time making ends meet, she said, “That’s the difference between conservatives and liberals; I don’t believe in a livable wage.” Still, that admission didn’t keep voters in the affluent district from electing her.
Ossoff certainly didn’t lose over a lack of cash. He raised $23 million to her $4 million in the priciest House race in history. Yet voters weren’t persuaded to switch teams, just as in other recent special House races in South Carolina, Montana and Kansas’ 4th District, where Ron Estes’ 7-point margin of victory was seen as prosciutto-thin.
One of the reasons for this string of losses is that the structural disadvantages Democrats face haven’t changed under Trump. Gerrymandering GOP officials across the country have left so few districts in play that to succeed, Democrats must win over Republicans in places like Kansas’ 3rd District, which is now represented by Kevin Yoder.
So far, the president remains relatively popular with those voters. He had a 72 percent approval rating among them in a new CBS poll — down 11 points since April but still nowhere near “run for the exits” territory. And if that changed, Republicans might see staying in control of Congress as even more important.
Though Ossoff pitched to moderates on the economy, ads from both sides focused heavily on his support of and Handel’s opposition to Planned Parenthood, and it’s fair to ask whether the more than $700,000 Planned Parenthood itself spent on the race hurt or helped its candidate.
Soon, Democrats will have to decide whether they think they’d do better in next year’s midterms by moving to the center or to the left — essentially, by winning converts or punishing heretics.
But if they remain oblivious to the social conservatism of red-state and red-district culture, they’ll remain flummoxed as to why a 30-year-old filmmaker with experience in — oh no! — Washington, who isn’t married to his partner and doesn’t look like he shaves every day might not beat even a weak GOP rival.