Another night, another round of Democratic losses. Two this time, with Jon Ossoff and Archie Parnell’s defeats. Democrats are getting awfully good at losing. We lose special elections. We lose regular elections. We lose nail-biters. We lose landslides.
More optimistic Democrats than myself point to Democratic over-performance in these contests versus past races, arguing it predicts a coming blue wave in 2018. And sure, the last Republican in Georgia’s 6th won by 23 points last November. But that was a longtime incumbent up against an underfunded opponent. And Trump only won the district by one point. Ossoff underperformed Clinton’s margin even after spending tens of millions of dollars.
And herein lies the problem: last night’s dual results showed once again that when both sides engage, Democrats lose. When a Democratic challenger flies under the radar in a red district (like with South Carolina’s Parnell or Kansas’ James Thompson), he/she still fails, but to a lesser extent than expected. For those expecting a huge repudiation of Trump in the midterms based on big Democratic enthusiasm overwhelming a wavering Republican base, last night seemed to raise some doubts.
We saw this in Wisconsin. During the recall races in the aftermath of Scott Walker’s gutting of the state’s collective bargaining laws, Democrats saw tons of new activism and energy. The problem, however, was that the right got just as riled up and turned out to vote in the recalls in record levels as well. Waukesha County, the deep-red western suburbs of Milwaukee, saw a 72% turnout. Milwaukee County got to 56%. Even Dane County, home to Madison, only hit 67%.
We also saw this in Iowa this past cycle (and in many previous). Consider the state senate races. Several Democratic candidates who were not targeted got to higher percentages than the ones who got the full support of party funding and ran expensive races. Non-targeted candidates like Susan Bangert received 39% in a Northern Iowa district, while Miyoko Hikiji got 40% and Andrew Barnes got 44% in the Des Moines suburbs. Meanwhile, Democratic incumbents Brian Schoenjahn got 40% and Mary Jo Wilhelm was held to only 38% – hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in their races.
When both parties engaged in places like Schoenjahn and Wilhelm’s districts, the negative attacks took their toll and Democratic messaging wasn’t enough to prop up the incumbents. Non-targeted candidates like Bangert, Hikiji and Barnes ran better by flying under the radar as just a generic Democrat or name on the ballot – still, though, not enough to win. Of course, had Republicans spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking any of those three, they probably wouldn’t have done as well.
The one true Democratic wave year of 2006 happened because Democrats were energized and Republicans were demoralized after six years of George W. Bush and war. But when both sides come out in these targeted races, there are simply more people who vote Republican than Democrat.
It’s why I’m not convinced 2018 is going to be some sort of massive blue wave, where the party takes back dozens of House seats across the country. Trump is going to rally his voters that year. Every competitive seat is going to see millions of dollars of spending. When Republican voters see a Democrat might win in their district or state, they’ll rally around their candidate.
Some Democrats would prefer we maintain optimism and enthusiasm. And many really do believe that the improved performances in the special elections will translate into a nationwide advantage, putting Democrats over the edge in marginal seats.
My concern with that is that it breeds complacency in the way we run our campaigns. Democrats have been doing absolutely terribly at the local, state and congressional level since Barack Obama’s first win in 2008. His victories overshadowed the fact that the party was in an awful state everywhere else in the country. Democrats had net losses of 958 state legislative seats, 12 governorships, 62 U.S. House seats and 9 U.S. Senate seats.
During the Iowa Caucus I asked both then-DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Democratic Super PAC leader David Brock what they did differently after the 2010 and 2014 losses. Neither had an answer.
I’m not going to get into the ideological debate of what Democrats should try next. I was pleasantly amused by the reaction in the aftermath of last night’s defeat with everyone claiming the loss simply underscored their previous beliefs. Democrats aren’t progressive enough! Democrats aren’t moderate enough! We spent too much money! We didn’t spend enough! We need to hit Trump harder! We need to recruit more personable candidates!
But one thing I do want to ask is whether organizations like the DCCC have done serious reviews of whether their media, polling, messaging and field strategies are working. They’re certainly good at raising money. But they’ve turned so much of how they run campaigns into a science, and it sure seems like it’s coming up short a lot. You can claim improvement in the Georgia 6th, but spending over $25 million to come up short isn’t a victory any way you spin it. I have particular doubts about how Democratic field strategies have been developing in recent years and whether our in-person conversations and targeting of voters are actually working.
None of that will actually change if we keep moving forward as if everything’s fine. The Democratic base is clamoring for a new approach in how we run campaigns. There are lots of different ideas out there, some probably more effective than others. But the first thing that needs to happen is Democratic leadership at the national level – whether it be the DCCC, DSCC, DNC, the allied Super PACs and just the general Democratic political consulting community – actually questions whether their tried-and-true strategies are still working. It certainly seems like that conversation hasn’t happened yet.
by Pat Rynard