Democrats have yet to get their first big win in the Trump era. A few nights ago they lost the special elections in both South Carolina and Georgia making them zero-for-four in special elections against Republicans.
With all the hysteria surrounding the losses for Democrats, particularly in Georgia with Jon Ossoff losing the most expensive House race in history, political pundits from the left and right are claiming the Democrats don’t know how to win. One could look at these elections and come to the conclusion that there are fundamental problems within the party that prohibit them from resonating with voters. In turn predicting that Democrats are destined to lose again in 2018, but this conclusion would be a wrong one.
Both the sixth district in Georgia and the fifth district in South Carolina have been historically red districts. The sixth district in Georgia hasn’t had a Democratic representative since John J. Flynt Jr. in 1979 and has been electing Republicans by huge margins for over three decades. Georgia sixth district is the same district in which Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by 23 points, and where Tom Price consistently won over 60% of the vote in House races. Though, in the past election, Donald Trump only won the sixth district by 1.5%, marking a significant drop from past Republicans. Jon Ossoff winning was a long shot from the moment he decided to run, but there was momentum, and he took 48.1 percent of the vote with him.
South Carolina’s fifth district has a lesser history of being a heavy Republican district, though former Representative Michael Mulvaney had defeated Joe Biden’s aide Fran Person by a whopping 21 percentage points, and held onto the seat until 2011. Couple this with the fact that Trump won the district by 18 percentage points, it was safe to say that the district was a reliable Republican stronghold. Also, the district was not considered competitive; instead, expectations were raised due to the close races and increased attention in both Georgia and Montana. Archie Parnell lost the special election by just three percentage points, taking in 48 percent of the vote in a large red district.
The reason that the special elections were happening in the first place was because Trump had appointed sitting House members to his administration. Republicans have won several close races this year in districts that were considered favorable to them and should be concerned rather than delighted that they’ve won by such narrow margins. It’s worth noting that seven months ago the GOP candidates running in Georgia and South Carolina won their respective seats by 23.5 and 20.5 percentage points.
All things considered, even though winning was a long shot, Democrats must be disappointed by the close results in Georgia, as well as in South Carolina. Each of the special election defeats was a missed opportunity to take over a Republican House seat and see how their campaign strategies could be applied in future elections. Alas, Democrats fell short again and again are now facing the question: Why does the party keep losing elections?
Democratic Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio declared “The national brand is toxic, there’s no doubt about it, We are not connecting with people the way we need to connect with them.” This was evident in other races around the country, especially in Montana with candidate Rob Quist distancing himself from the DNC. Quist did not want the DNC Chair Tom Perez to campaign with him, instead wanted to have his own independent voice.
In these cases, the special elections are supposed to be a test for Democratic policy agendas, campaign messaging, and strategy in hopes of winning Republican districts in the future. Democrats improved upon Hillary Clinton’s margins in every district except in Georgia. The sheer fact that candidates fared better than Clinton in these races indicates that Democratic voters are energized. In spite of this, it seems the Democratic Party’s national brand still remains heavily damaged, and unclear to voters what their core message is in the Trump era.
By the same token, Democrats seem unsure how to effectively talk about Donald Trump, even as Republicans have come together on attacking Democrats as the out of touch liberal elites. Georgia’s sixth district was a missed opportunity to run a campaign around an anti-Trump message, as Ossoff shied away from honest criticism of the President. Claiming in an interview with MSNBC “I don’t have great personal admiration for the man, but there’s room to work across the aisle.”
In the long run, the cautious campaign messaging might end up working in their favor, but Democrats may have fumbled an opportunity to test out a campaign rooted in direct objection of the President.
With all of this in mind, there’s no reason to hit the panic button, losing elections in 2017 does not mean that the party won’t compete successfully in 2018. Politically speaking, Democrats are performing well for a party out of power and still have a legitimate opportunity to retake the House next year in the mid-term elections. The DCCC identified “somewhere between 94 and 71 districts” as more competitive than the district Ossoff lost for the mid-term elections. After all the party out of power in the White House historically gains seats in midterm elections.
As can be seen, Democrats have a tremendous amount of work to do. They do not hold the White House, Senate, or House and only hold one in three governorships and state legislatures. These few special election losses in conservative districts shouldn’t make Democrats alarmed, but hopeful for what can happen if they fight and make clear to voters what exactly they will fight for and against in Washington.
Rutgers Student studying Political Science & Government with a minor in Journalism who has an interest in the intersection of journalism and political movements.