In retrospect, it’s clear that Democrats invested too heavily in the special election in Georgia’s sixth district. Despite an attractive centrist candidate, enough money to launch a small war, and the millstone of President Donald Trump’s White House circus to hang around the neck of the Republican candidate, they clearly faced unfavorable odds in a red state. Yet encouraged by their mainstream-media cheering section’s desire to make the vote a referendum on Trump, they wound up boosting expectations to the point where even a narrow loss would feel devastating, rather than like a moral victory that might be a harbinger of midterm success next year.
The most important result of this tactical error isn’t the encouragement that Jon Ossoff’s narrow loss gives Republicans in the short term, but the potential it has to reinforce the Left’s determination to make 2018 about the anti-Trump “resistance” rather than attempting to woo back the white working-class voters who put Trump in the White House. If that potential is fulfilled, a very respectable showing by the kind of candidate who can put a lot of competitive seats into play for the party next year may ironically wind up ensuring that the Democrats tilt farther to the left and squander their chances of a midterm win.
As with any political defeat, the Georgia loss led some Democrats to call for changes in leadership and strategy. Some tried to blame it all on House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, whose unpopularity was a major cudgel for Handel’s campaign. But most Democratic activists are taking a different point of view about the race and their party’s future. They believe the problem is that the party hasn’t provided a stark enough contrast to the GOP. Supporters of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Keith Ellison, these Democrats want a more populist party that is dedicated to the vast expansion of entitlement programs rather than the pragmatism that Ossoff pitched to voters.
This dynamic ought to sound familiar to Republicans. After their 2012 defeat, many of them believed their party had to reach out to Hispanics and female voters, two groups among whom Mitt Romney had been beaten badly by President Obama. Meanwhile, populist conservatives such as Ted Cruz thought the answer was to appeal to the party’s base and others alienated by Obama. By embracing the latter strategy, Trump was able to claim the White House.
Leftists who, perhaps wrongly, believe Sanders would have done better than Hillary Clinton are thinking along the same lines, albeit from the other end of the spectrum. Like the angry Republicans who elected Trump, they don’t want to be told that their party has to accommodate the center in order to win. They want an authentic alternative to Trump as well as a full-throated appeal to the progressive base.
Though no national party can be categorized as all one thing or another and centrist districts are still likely to produce centrist candidates, the smart money should remain on the Left’s largely succeeding in taking control of the midterm message. Leaving aside the obvious advantage in primaries for anyone who appeals to a party base, there are two reasons why this is the case: Obamacare and Trump.
It’s hard to see how they can win solely by running against Trump or by pursuing an agenda that offends the voters they lost to him.
If Senate Republicans finally repeal and replace the ACA and Trump signs the result into law, it will ensure the issue moves to the top of the agenda for both parties. Democrats will concentrate on demonizing the GOP for supposedly depriving millions of Americans of health care and killing others. But rather than inspire liberals to defend a pre-Trump status quo that they know is deeply flawed, this will only strengthen the desire of the party’s base to make a single-payer system their priority, which in turn promises to alienate the centrist voters Democrats need.
As if the anti-Trump “resistance” weren’t politically problematic enough for that cause.
Part of the problem in Georgia and elsewhere was that Democrats didn’t have a coherent message to sell other than abhorrence for Trump. Right now, most Democrats don’t really have much interest in anything else. From the moment he won the election, evicting Trump from the White House has been the obsession of the Democratic base. That motivates party activists and donors in a way that Hillary Clinton never did. Talk about reaching out to Trump voters may make sense, but it will never excite the base in the same way.
Some on the left will point to Trump as proof that a populist campaign can win. Others will point to the gains made by Britain’s Labour party under the extreme left-wing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. But it’s hard to see how they can win solely by running against Trump or by pursuing an agenda that offends the voters they lost to him.
No matter what the investigations into collusion with Russia produce, the Democrats are well on their way to spending the next year being the party of impeachment, and no sage advice about how best to win the midterms is likely to change that. Liberals want a voice of their own, not an echo, and that is likely to mean they will be pushing hard for candidates and messages that take them farther from the center as 2018 approaches.