Here is perhaps the worst talking point from Democrats after their candidate’s loss in the Georgia 6th District special election: that Jon Ossoff narrowed a 23-point gap in last year’s election to about 4 points in Tuesday night’s runoff.
Here is why it’s a bad talking point: Last year, Tom Price, who vacated the congressional seat to become the secretary of health and human services, was a six-term Republican incumbent who raised more than $2 million. His Democratic opponent raised nothing and spent $346.
The race to replace Price was a money bonanza, with both Ossoff and the eventual winner, Republican Karen Handel, enjoying a seemingly bottomless pit of funds both within their campaigns and from outside groups. Ossoff’s campaign spent more than $22.5 million on the race – or, to be exact, $22,532,263.57 more than the Democratic candidate who faced Price last year.
Put another way, Ossoff spent $22,532,263.57 more to finish 9.5 percentage points better than Democrats did last time in the district. And by the way, Ossoff’s 48% was little better than Hillary Clinton’s performance in the district in the 2016 presidential election.
It’s wise not to read too much into a special election, even if it is one into which both major national US parties poured money and effort. But it’s also wise for Democrats not to treat this completely as a one-off – and, even worse, as some sort of moral victory because they came closer than last time. Or, as one Democratic strategist quipped to Business Insider, sarcastically, “We beat the spread!”
One prominent Democrat who did not adhere to that message was Rep. Seth Moulton, of Massachusetts, who said Ossoff’s loss should be a “wake up” call for Democrats.
“Time to stop rehashing 2016 and talk about the future,” he tweeted. “We need a genuinely new message, a serious jobs plan that reaches all Americans, and a bigger tent not a smaller one. Focus on the future.”
For Democrats, this should resonate on a lot of points. For all of the drama surrounding President Donald Trump’s first 150 days in office, and despite the fact he’s the least popular president at this point in recent memory, Democrats still have not found a way to beat him – and the candidates in his party – on the ground.
Maybe that’s because, as Moulton suggested, they don’t have a message. Maybe it’s because, instead of learning lessons from the 2016 disaster, the most prominent politicians in the party are still Clinton, who is running around publicly venting about her loss, and Barack Obama, who is running around still trying to be president.
There is evidence that poor decision-making has carried through to 2017. The party got an earful for putting most of its chips into the Georgia race while investing little into a closer-than-expected special election in Kansas. And in South Carolina on Tuesday, also a race in which the party poured few resources, the Democratic candidate came closer in defeat than Ossoff.
Things can change quickly, of course. As GOP strategist Ken Spain pointed out, Republicans were left for dead after a 2010 special-election loss in Pennsylvania in the wake of Obamacare’s passage. We all know what happened in the 2010 midterm elections.
But moral victories don’t mean much. That’s especially true when you look at the practical effects going forward.
Instead of a reeling White House and nervous Republican Party on Capitol Hill, instead of Republican incumbents strongly considering retirement rather than face a wave, and instead of the party suddenly having less appetite for standing up to Trump, the president’s chances for legislative progress suddenly look more promising than they have in weeks.