This originally appeared in Reason Revolution, episode two.
So, what to make of last week’s Georgia 6th special congressional election? The most expensive congressional race in American history, the Democrats were hoping to pull off an upset that would upend President Trump’s chances at a post-election mandate by the voters. Sadly, this didn’t happen. Instead, Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff by 3.8 percent of the vote. Ossoff did worse in this election than Hillary Clinton did last November, when Trump won the district by only 1.5 percent. Are the Democrats right to be worried about their prospects in the era of Trump? Should Republicans celebrate this victory and then prepare for the future battle of the 2018 midterms?
I think it is a little of both. The Democrats put too much stock in this election, overspending and overhyping a candidate that wasn’t much to write home about. While the enthusiasm was there, Ossoff himself was a generic person with a generic campaign message in an age that demands clear ideas. He refused to go after Trump, to talk more about the impending health care repeal, and to make clear distinctions between him and his opponent. He seems like a nice guy, but he couldn’t get over the “carpetbagger” narrative. While Georgia election laws allow a candidate to live anywhere in the state while running for a specific congressional district, that fact that he didn’t live in the district was politically disastrous. His reasoning was that he lived with his fiancee, a training medical student whose residence is close to where she works. Laudable personal choice; terrible political choice.
Also, Handel was well known in her district. She had served in state government and had run multiple times for higher elected office. In many respects, she had a running start. The 6th Congressional District had to be filled when Tom Price left congress to become Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary. When he won reelection in 2016, he won by more than 20% against a largely nonexistent democrat the apparently only spent around $350. It was also former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s district. The fact that Democrats did as well as they did is pretty remarkable.
Here’s my message to the Democrats. I applaud your efforts in trying to win this race. It shows that you understand the importance of local elections again. However, the special election in South Carolina, which occurred on the same day and you seemed not to care as much about, was even closer than Georgia. There’s a trend happening here that favors the Democrats. Nevertheless, you’re 0-4 in these special election races. Think about what you could’ve done better, regroup, and come back ten times as hard. There’s no time to waste.
Now is the time to focus on the 2018 midterms. Educate people on the policies you support and play to their identities as well. In you’re in a working class district, focus on jobs, economic growth, wage fairness, and health care. In you’re in a white collar district, talk about tax reform, economic growth, and paid family leave. In you’re in a minority district, focus on the issues of police overreach, mass incarceration, wage fairness, and improving education.
Democrats should rebuild their part as a big tent, with working class labor, white collar business, and minority activism. However, these groups need to put their smaller, ideological differences aside and focus on the big, electoral picture. Identity politics can only take you so far; you also need to focus on economic issues as well. If they do, Democrats have a good shot at taking back the house in 2018. For now, fight the craziness of Trump & give voters a distinct choice, because if the choices are republican and republican light, people will go republican. Rediscover what it means to be a Democrat; be the party that embraces and celebrates politcal, as well as cultural and ethnic, diversity. Then you will win and the Republicans will never know what hit them.