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
10 Comments on "All These “Moral Victories” Sure Are Demoralizing"
read “Do not think of an Elephant’ by George Lakoff.
Great job of vomiting words without actually saying anything of substance.
Good, well-informed counter-point
I’m a little from column A, a little from column B. I agree that we can’t just rely on anti-Trump feelings to result in a wave. But I also see progress in districts that, so far, shouldn’t really be favorable ground for democrats. Candidate recruitment is vital, but leadership at the local and national level is as well. Like it or not, Karen Handel was a known commodity in a conservative district, but since she isn’t an incumbent, she didn’t have the baggage of taking tough votes on issues like healthcare. And Jon Ossoff was basically portrayed as Nancy Pelosi’s best friend. And Pelosi is less popular in that district than Trump by nearly 10 points! In so many districts, Pelosi is sort of a boogeyman to scare right of center voters to the polls.
I wonder about what’s happening at the state level as well. I haven’t heard nearly enough from the Iowa Democratic Party about what they’re doing to improve messaging or recruit good candidates in every district. Has anything changed with Derek Eadon at the helm? How is candidate recruitment going? How are those candidates planning on messaging in their respective districts? Running generic ads that look like they were made by consultants for generic democratic candidates clearly doesn’t work. Running for office is hard, and convincing people to trust you is even harder. You need to make it a full-time job, knocking on doors till your knuckles are bloody. But you need a message that’s more than just, “Iowa values…Branstad sucks…Trump is bad…etc…” In fact, I’d love to read more about what the party is doing in Iowa to improve our messaging and candidate recruitment (even though I know Mr. Rynard’s busy and I love this site:) ). Is the party doing things differently? Are we crafting quality messages for conservative parts of the state? How is recruitment going? If anyone knows anything, please share! I want to know that we have a great plan to make inroads in the state over the next 17 months.
If anybody has examined Dave Loebsak’s victories/numbers, the truth is that he outperformed Clinton by tailoring his message to the voters of his district. I am sure there were many attack ads through time, trying to tie him to Nancy Pelosi but, they haven’t worked.
Honestly, I (to put it bluntly) would like to see candidates that basically say, “Nancy Who?” Then tell the voters that it would be great if Pelosi followed along with the agenda items that the candidate intends to lead on. Yes, Pelosi is the house minority leader but, she has become the identity that screams “Hollywood Liberal who doesn’t get midwestern values” in way too many attack ads, even though she isn’t technically from Hollywood.
Obama was loud and proud with his campaign style. He was able to simplify some of his agenda items to easy to remember quips like, immigration reform, increased pell grants, and infrastructure repair and he was able to project that in ways that were memorable and made sense. These 2 and 3 word agenda items were easy to remember because of the loud and proud way he campaigned.
To tie that back to house races as well as other smaller but, just as important races, candidates need to be intwined in their districts/communities like Loebsak is while at the same time simple, memorable, loud, and proud like Obama was. I don’t see for example, the loss in Georgia as demoralizing as that is Georgia and not here or otherwise. Democrats haven’t won there in ages.
What I find demoralizing is the simple generic democrats that don’t project an Iowa-centric, unapologetic, “I’m for this and this is why this is best for x in Iowa” type of message. I would love if a candidate were able to distance themselves and make whatever opponent’s super-pac feel dumb for running the same Pelosi ad that we have all seen time after time. I honestly can’t remember the last state candidate that didn’t run a party-line boring message, instead of a unique memorable one.
I agree with your different approaches to and finding a coherent message. However I admit to being stunned by the special election outcome just considering the voters knew what they would be losing. Beyond amazing.
What voters “knew” what they were going to lose? Ignorance is at work in this kind of voting and a lot of it willful ignorance.
Robin, it IS beyond amazing. And, in particular, what the candidate of the Rights was saying. Essentially, policy matters not. Anything a Democrat espouses – EVEN IF IT WAS ORIGINALLY A REPUBLICAN IDEA – is automatically bad. Doesn’t matter WHAT it is. And that appears to be the entire message. I agree strongly, Pat Rynard, that Dems need a new strategy, big time. 50-state strategy is great – if here is something to counter “‘R’ GOOD…’D’ BAD…” message. Do *I* want to see the party move to left? Hell, yes. Just I’m not one who believes that such a move will magically convert our losses to wins, without something else to prop that strategy. And that “something else” is what Dems lack. And I don;t have a clue what that something else is…
What is at issue is cohesive nation-wide party-line that what is at stake to save our democracy is public money for public good. This includes medicare, single payer and state run medicaid. It means progressive taxation. It means funding public education and state universities so everyone has equal access to a quality education. It means a livable wage, and equal treatment of workers vs. employers. We need to be very clear about how we want our tax dollars used in a fiscally responsible way. Public-private ventures would be okay only with oversight. Resistance should be against privatization of public good, and against only considering the needs of employers vs the needs of the work force.
Americans are tired of the smearing and obstruction. There are serious problems in America that need solutions. They see Democrats doing nothing but getting in the way of fixing jobs, healthcare and security issues. That’s why Democrats are 0 and 5 in special elections.