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What The Democratic Loss in Georgia Means For The Midterms

Jan Yanes (center) cries as  Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff concedes the special election for Georgia's 6th Congressional District Tuesday night.
David Goldman
Jan Yanes (center) cries as Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff concedes the special election for Georgia's 6th Congressional District Tuesday night.

Defeat is an orphan.

Summing up the left's response to its deflating loss in a special congressional election in the Atlanta suburbs were two reactions:

1. Jim Dean, chairman of the progressive activist group Democracy For America, in a statement:

And ...

2. Seth Moulton, a congressman from Massachusetts and former Iraq War veteran, who tweeted that the loss should be a "wake up call" for Democrats. He said the party needs to look to the future, have a "bigger tent" and a "serious jobs plan" and "stop rehashing 2016":

The Democratic divide is highlighted pretty starkly in the string of responses to Moulton's tweet.

Call it the Dean-Moulton Line of Demarcation: Be more progressive! Or — no, be more moderate where you need to be.

Special elections can be overinterpreted. Believe me — some of us thought a special election to replace a Democratic congressman in a white, working-class district in Pennsylvania was a good sign for the party in 2010. It turned out not to be, and Democrats were "shellacked," in President Obama's words, losing 63 seats and control of the House six months later.

But Democrats did this to themselves. They hyped a race that they were hoping would be a referendum on President Trump, and more money was spent on it — more than $50 million with outside groups factored in — than for any congressional race in history.

The party still doesn't know what it is or needs to be — and that can portend problems heading into next year's midterms.

Should the party focus on Trump, whose approval rating is in the tank? (Pro tip: It wasn't so hot in the presidential election, either.) Or should it try to have something else to stand on and sell as a unified party vision? Can it do both?

So far, Democrats haven't been able to walk that line. This year, they are 0 for 4 in special elections, from Kansas to Montana to Georgia and South Carolina. Some Democrats are taking solace in the fact that they fared better in each of those places than candidates who ran for those seats in 2016. And maybe with good reason.

But Georgia 6 was the most moderate by far. Yes, Democrats need to win a net of 24 seats to take back Congress, and 47 districts held by Republicans are less conservative than Georgia 6. But it's the kind of district Democrats need to win to take back the House.

It is the sixth-most-educated district in the country and chock full of moderate, suburban Republicans. (The top five most-educated districts are held by Democrats, as are 13 of the top 15.)

Those Republicans chose their comfort level with their party and a candidate in Karen Handel, who is a known quantity, over someone with little experience — who didn't even live in the district — in Jon Ossoff.

So is it possible Democrats can still take back the House? Sure, but it's always been less than likely because of how the districts are drawn. And this was a race they needed for momentum in the short run.

The loss is already negatively affecting the "resistance's" morale and could hurt recruiting. That's not to mention what it could mean in Washington. President Trump tweeted that Democrats should stop "obstruction" and work with Republicans:

Trump weighed into the race, tweeting support for Handel. Handel didn't talk much about Trump on the trail but embraced him as the party's leader and welcomed him to the district if he so chose to go. Will that be how other candidates in somewhat moderate districts deal with the Trump factor?

GOP leadership in the Senate is set to drop a health care bill this week, to be voted on next week. Had Georgia turned out differently, it's possible the bill would have been dead and something more moderate would have emerged.

But Republicans don't see a need for that now with the wind at their backs again.

What's more, there is already renewed pressure for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to step aside. She was the main focus of many of the Republicans' ads against Ossoff. Moulton supported Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan in his failed bid for Democratic leader. Do those calls grow stronger?

Pelosi staffer Drew Hammill defended Pelosi as the party's best fundraiser who keeps the conference in line:

Ossoff tried to walk the Dean-Moulton Line. Dean's group actually endorsed Ossoff, and he gladly took that San Francisco and Hollywood money. Ossoff did not campaign as the resistance candidate, though, despite that being projected onto him by the Democratic (and GOP) base.

Progressives made this about Trump, even if Ossoff didn't, and they lost.

On the ground, he didn't talk much about Trump and tried to appear moderate, talking about the issues important to the district.

That didn't work either.

It could be that Ossoff shouldn't have taken that outside money and refused the lefty image. It could be that he should have leaned in more to the anti-Trump messaging. Or it could be that a somewhat wooden 30-year-old documentary filmmaker and former Capitol Hill staffer didn't have much of a chance in the first place in a right-leaning district.

The fundamentals of this race always favored Handel. As a former Georgia secretary of state who had run twice (and failed) for governor and Senate, she was better-known. The district has long been Republican. And there are far more registered Republicans in the district.

With all the attention on the race, turnout was upfor a special election, and that helps the party with the registration advantage.

All of Ossoff's deficiencies would have been papered over by a win. With the loss, not only are they magnified, but so are the party's.

And what is the party right now — a "big tent" inclusive party or one with label-shaming litmus tests, like the ones it used to criticize conservatives for having?

How the party and its candidates should proceed from here sure sounds like the existential conversation Republicans were having with themselves in the age of Obama.

The GOP put out an autopsy advocating for specifics after Obama was re-elected — in particular, calling on candidates to support comprehensive immigration reform.

And then the rank and file nominated Donald Trump — and he won.

Go figure.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.