A woman cries in Atlanta as Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff concedes to Republican Karen Handel. (David Goldman/Assoicated Press)
The Democrats’ long losing streak continued this week in a Southern suburban district that Donald Trump barely won last fall. The party’s great hope for the Georgia seat was a $24 million man whose victory would have likely had a seismic impact on Washington’s direction, rattling Republicans in Congress already nervous about the president. But Jon Ossoff lost Tuesday’s special election to Karen Handel — despite running at a time when the president and his Republican allies in Congress suffer from record-low approval ratings. Neither the GOP’s unpopularity nor the Democrats’ ability to organize marches, raise millions or attack the Trump administration’s crazed approach to governing changed Tuesday’s outcome.
The Democrats simply lost. Again.
The party has been on a historic run over the past eight years — all in the wrong direction. Since Barack Obama’s breathtaking victory in 2008, Democrats have been wheezing their way through one political defeat after another. They have lost more than 1,000 state legislative seats and governorships and now control only one-third of the country’s legislative chambers. And it is not just in red or purple states where Democrats’ fortunes have collapsed. In deep-blue Connecticut, Democrats held twice as many state Senate seats as Republicans in 2008. That advantage has been erased entirely. In the state’s House chamber, Democrats back then controlled 114 seats to Republicans’ 37. Today, the GOP is only a handful of seats away from taking control. All in a state where Hillary Clinton trounced Trump.
Across the country, Democrats are weaker on the state level than at any time since William McKinley was president. They control fewer governorships than at any time since Woodrow Wilson was in the White House and have forfeited more seats to Republicans in the U.S. House than at any time since Herbert Hoover was elected.
The party’s latest setback has only heightened its internal tensions, with some calling for the ouster of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). But an even bigger challenge for Democratic leaders will be managing the intraparty fight between left-wing heretic hunters and more moderate forces hoping to rebuild Franklin D. Roosevelt’s coalition of ideologically diverse allies. Roosevelt’s melange of Northern progressives and Southern conservatives passed Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Civil Rights Act. It dominated Congress for most of the 20th century. Tearing down that big tent in favor of a more ideologically homogenized movement would be a recipe for political disaster.
Instead, to win nationally, Democrats must start thinking locally. Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics are local, and the liberal Boston speaker of the House practiced what he preached. Because of it, O’Neill’s party dominated national politics for decades by recruiting conservatives in the South, moderates in the Midwest and liberals in large industrial states. That embrace of ideological diversity kept Republicans in the political wilderness for 40 years, and I saw the strategy’s impact firsthand during my time in Congress, even during a period when Republicans were in control of the House.
In 1998, Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina and I traveled the country helping Republicans in tough election fights. One night we found ourselves in a conservative Kentucky district where the Republican should have been ahead by 20 points. I pulled the candidate aside and began peppering him with questions.
“How weak is your opponent on the Second Amendment?”
“Oh, he’s got a 100 percent rating with the NRA,” came the response.
“What about abortion? Any weaknesses there?” I asked.
“The guy is pro-life.”
I smiled, excused myself and walked over to Graham. “Enjoy the hors d’oeuvres. This race is over.” And so it was. The Democrat was so culturally aligned with the Southern district he wanted to represent that middle-class voters could vote for a candidate they also perceived as aligned with their economic interests. On Tuesday, by contrast, Georgia voters were less comfortable with Ossoff, as they have been with Democrats across the South for some time.
Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006 when their views were out of step with all of New England and most of the Midwest. In that election, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), then the leader of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was canny enough to put aside ideology and recruit pro-gun, antiabortion candidates to pick off conservative seats that would have otherwise been out of reach. Today, the situation is reversed, with many Democratic leaders and activists more focused on ideological purity than on regaining political power.
Continuing on that course will lead to even more Democratic defeats, and to what Democrats fear most: more support in Congress for Trump.