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Analysis: After bitter Georgia loss, Democrats struggle to chart a course

Supporter Jan Yanes cries as the Democratic candidate for Georgia's 6th Congressional District, Jon Ossoff, concedes to Republican Karen Handel at his election-night party in Atlanta on June 20.
(David Goldman / Associated Press)

As battered Democrats assess their loss in Tuesday’s Georgia House race, they are finding that the path back to power, which they hoped had been opened up by voter discontent with President Trump, is full of tricky obstacles.

The loss in Georgia was bitter, after Democrats, in the most expensive House race ever, invested tens of millions of dollars in a political newcomer and millennial, Jon Ossoff.

Finger-pointing was immediate. Blame fell on House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, on the cautious neophyte candidate. The complaints about muddled strategy by the party were exacerbated by the results from the special election in South Carolina on the same day, a race that Washington had all but ignored. The Democrat there came closer to victory than Ossoff.

But even as Trump crowed about the failure of Democrats to win a single special election in a GOP district since he was elected, nonpartisan analysts said the returns in all those races, including the one in Georgia, should trouble him. The excitement and fervor is not on his side. In districts where Republicans have long been all but guaranteed victory, they have lost considerable ground. Their advantage at the polls in districts in Georgia, Kansas, Montana and South Carolina has shrunk in several cases by more than 20 points compared with races before Trump was elected.

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And special elections can mislead. Republicans lost seven such races in a row after President Obama was elected in 2008, including a costly battle for what seemed a vulnerable Pennsylvania House seat for which the GOP mobilized much as Democrats did in Georgia. After defeat in that race, the Republicans looked lost — until they rode tea party momentum just months later to pick up 63 seats and take control of the House in the 2010 midterm election.

Some Republicans who were involved then are warning their colleagues not to take too much comfort now.

One big challenge for Democrats is that all the enthusiasm on their side sparked a counterreaction among Georgia voters. The residents of heavily Republican suburbs north of Atlanta who went to the polls this week are not wild about Trump — he carried their district by less than 2 points — but enough of them clearly resented the move by national Democrats to make an example out of the region.

If that trend continues, Democrats will have trouble picking up seats. When Democrats had a wave of pickups in 2006, it was due in large part to their voters being motivated and Republicans staying home. The opposite happened in 2010, when the GOP took control of the House in part because Democrats didn’t show up to vote.

The party is straining to hit on a message that motivates voters without irritating disaffected Republicans to the point where they come to the polls just to vote against the Democrat running.

The Georgia race did nothing to solve the internal debate raging among Democrats about how hard to go after Trump in their campaigns. Ossoff avoided attacking him.

“He tried to run as an independent, as a neutral, almost nonpartisan candidate, to de-emphasize the party label,” said Kerwin Swint, a professor of political science at Kennesaw State University. But in doing so, Swint said, “you’re going to turn off a lot of your base. That’s the problem. You have to do it on a district-by-district basis. There’s no magic blueprint or anything. What works for this district may be of limited help next year.”

Jon Ossoff delivers a concession speech during his election night party.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
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A stronger candidate than Ossoff might have been better positioned to thread that needle. Ossoff’s résumé was thin. He had no political accomplishments. He grew up in the area but spent much of his short career on Capitol Hill. He came off more Georgetown than Georgia. He did not even live in the district, opting to keep the apartment he and his girlfriend shared in Atlanta.

All that made it easy for Republicans and outside conservative groups to convince voters the candidate was a creation of Pelosi, who is reviled by voters in the district. This, after all, is the district that elected Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price, and, before him, GOP firebrand Newt Gingrich.

“Democrats’ bold claims to compete for GOP-held suburban seats blew up in their faces in Georgia,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee who vowed Democrats will have just as hard a time in 2018 in the GOP-held districts Trump lost in Orange County, Calif., as they did in Georgia. “Running cookie-cutter, nationalized campaigns … won’t cut it.”

But in next year’s midterm election, Democrats will be fielding candidates in many districts who have much deeper experience and impressive résumés. Many have already started to step forward to run in districts, including those in Orange County and other suburban areas around the country, where the erosion of GOP support has been more intense than in the Atlanta suburbs.

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There are 70 seats currently held by Republicans where the makeup of the electorate is more favorable to Democrats than it was for Ossoff, Democratic analyst Steve Schale pointed out in a blog post. The loss in Georgia highlighted how Democrats need to redouble their efforts to find top-tier candidates for them, he said.

It is a point not lost on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In a postmortem memo Wednesday, the committee’s chair, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, stressed a recruitment push, vowing to “take the time to find people who fit their districts.”

Many of those candidates will be battle-tested in a way Ossoff wasn’t, as they will probably have to endure an extended primary campaign. In Ossoff’s case, the field was all but cleared for him by the establishment.

Still, the results in Georgia give Democrats much to worry about.

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Despite Trump’s dismal favorability ratings overall, the Georgia election reinforced that the president remains popular with Republicans. His approval rating within his party is staying steady in the mid-80s in most polls, although a few recent surveys have shown a steeper decline.Prospects for Democrats winning back the House probably will be strongly influenced by whether Trump’s support within his party begins to wane, as was true for President George W. Bush at the time of the last Democratic wave election a decade ago.

Lujan suggested that Trump is headed in the same direction, noting in his DCCC memo that the president’s approval rating is particularly poor in the battlefield districts targeted by Democrats and that the party of first-term presidents loses 28 seats on average in the midterm election — four more than Democrats need to take the House.

But it is all cold comfort to Democrats this week. “We have our work cut out for us,” Lujan admitted.

evan.halper@latimes.com

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david.lauter@latimes.com

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