From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt…
You’ve Earned a Little Victory Dance This Morning, GOP!
Go ahead and do a little dance this morning, Republicans!
Watch to see if the conventional wisdom on Jon Ossoff as a candidate changes quickly. (I can’t tell whether Jonah is serious when he refers to Ossoff as a ‘hipster doofus candidate.’) Remember, heading into yesterday, he was considered a pretty solid candidate for this district, once you put aside the residency issue and his baby face. He’s got a pretty good resume (Georgetown, London School of Economics, held a security clearance while working in Congress, made a documentary about ISIS) and avoided gaffes on the trail and in debates.
For a long time, Republican campaign consultants and their allies would look at a Democratic opponent who had served in a state legislature or Congress, and add up every time they had voted in subcommittee, committee, or the full chamber for a bill, amendment or budget resolution that included tax increases. Sometimes they would throw in any vote against a tax cut as well. You know the end result from attack ads: “John Smith voted to raise taxes 132 times.”
In a legislature, a lawmaker votes on all kinds of matters, and sooner or later, he’ll make a controversial one. Democrats gradually realized that an inexperienced candidate, with no time spent in government, has something of an advantage in that there’s no record to examine and attack. A big part of the Democrats’ wave election in 2006 was built on first-time candidates or those with non-traditional candidate backgrounds: Jim Webb in Virginia, Tim Mahoney in Florida, Brad Ellsworth in Indiana (he had been a sheriff), Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack in Iowa, John Yarmuth in Kentucky, Tim Walz in Minnesota, Heath Shuler in North Carolina, Jason Altmire, Joe Sestak, Patrick Murphy and Chris Carney in Pennsylvania and Steve Kagan in Wisconsin. It’s easier to argue “I’m not like those other Democrats” when you have no record of voting like all those other Democrats.
Of course, in subsequent cycles, a lot of those Democrats elected in 2006 got knocked off, as they gradually accumulated a voting record that gave Republicans avenues of attack, and make the increasingly plausible argument that those representatives had grown too liberal for their districts.
Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide and documentary filmmaker, didn’t have much of a record. His ads were about what he wanted to do, and were pretty nonpartisan: “How do we keep metro Atlanta’s economy growing? Just ask the entrepreneurs who do it every day. Promote high-tech and biotech research, because it drives innovation. Prioritize our college and tech schools, so we can hire young people with the right skills. And cut the wasteful spending in Washington, because the deficits are holding back our economy. I approved this message because I’ll work with anyone to keep our economy growing. I’m listening to them.” The promises in that ad script could be run by just about any Republican running in a swing district across the country.
This was the playbook that worked for Democrats in districts like this before and this was the approach Democrats thought they could use heading into 2018 to regain control of the House. Let Trump’s low approval rating and the GOP’s difficulty passing legislation speak for themselves; target the suburbs full of white-collar and middle-class whites, particularly women, and come across as the sensible alternative.
That approach was good enough to get Ossoff to 48 percent twice.
Democrats can say this morning that they always knew this was a difficult district, but you don’t spend $31 million to finish a few points behind in a difficult House district. Democrats and progressives were convinced they had a chance to win this race, and the fact that they didn’t suggests that their real problem is that they don’t actually know where they can win. They’re walking around with a false sense of their own electability – just seven months after they were convinced Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election easily.
Yes, there’s a lot of road ahead, and there will be easier districts for Democrats to win in 2018. But when you add up all the spending and use the most recent numbers reported in the New York Times, it calculates to a $9 million advantage for the Democrats. ($23.6 million raised by Ossoff + $7.6 million spent by outside groups preferring him = $31.2 million; $4.5 million spent by Handel + $18.2 million spent by outside groups preferring her = $22.7 million.)
If you fall short in an open seat special election, in a district Trump barely carried, with a candidate who avoids gaffes and with a giant spending advantage… just where the heck are you going to win?
The other big story of the night was the special election in South Carolina’s fifth Congressional district, which received almost no attention because no one thought it would be competitive. Surprise! Ralph Norman, the Republican, defeated Archie Parnell, a Democrat, but only won by four points, a much smaller margin than expected. This is spurring some cries that the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fumbled by focusing so much on Georgia and barely at all on South Carolina. But if that race had gotten more attention from outside the district, it probably wouldn’t have been as competitive.
Turnout in South Carolina’s special election was extremely low, fewer than 90,000 votes. Even in a noncompetitive midterm year, like 2014, when Mick Mulvaney was cruising to an easy victory, more than 175,000 voted in this district. More attention would have likely brought out more unmotivated Republicans and helped Norman cushion his lead.