Democrats spent over $30 million but still came up short in Georgia’s runoff election Tuesday. Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff did not succeed to win a Republican-leaning seat.
Some Democratic strategists say the party failed to manage expectations ahead of a red-district race where a close margin for a losing Democratic candidate should have been celebrated as a win of its own. Because of high Democratic expectations about the race, they believe the post-special election narrative has instead been dominated yet again by chatter of Democrats coming up short. By keeping expectations low, they say the post-defeat storyline would instead have been about Republicans vastly underperforming in traditionally red seats.
“I just think we should have been more aggressive about expectation setting,” Brad Woodhouse, a former Democratic National Committee communications director, told The Hill. “The fact Republicans are sweating it should have been the story — not that it is a missed opportunity for us.”
“I don’t quibble with going all in. Democrats have to try to compete and win in districts like this, but you have to make sure donors, activists and the press keep things like this in perspective.”
Tuesday’s special election was the culmination of nearly six months of hyped-up national attention and tens of millions of dollars in campaign spending from both sides. Democrats wanted to vault Jon Ossoff into the suburban Atlanta seat, which they hoped would give the party its first victory in the era of President Trump. He raised a little more than $23 million, an unprecedented fundraising haul for a House candidate. His record fundraising became a major storyline of the nearly $60 million price tag of the race and some strategists believe that contributed to the difficulty of managing expectations.
“It’s impossible to keep expectations in check when the candidate breaks every fundraising record there is,” a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) senior official told The Hill.
Surveys leading up to the crucial Georgia showdown largely predicted a deadlocked race, with some showing slight edges for both candidates. A poll as early as Tuesday morning showed the candidates less than a point apart, with both parties gearing up for a long night ahead.
Republican Karen Handel underperformed compared to her predecessor, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who consistently won by more than 60 percent. Still, she ended up pulling off a nearly 4-point victory that was called just three hours after polls closed.
In the aftermath of Ossoff’s defeat, Democrats sought to play up how Ossoff closed the gap in a traditional GOP stronghold. But his strong showing in a GOP district was drowned out by the dashed expectations of a win.
Instead, the biggest surprise of the night was the closeness of a race more than 200 miles north of Georgia. South Carolina’s special election garnered little national coverage and only modest investments from national Democrats, but the Democratic nominee came within 3.2 points of his Republican opponent.
Still, some Democrats said the hype over Georgia was unavoidable. If Beltway Democrats had stayed out of the race, they say, they would have been blasted for ignoring a winnable seat. One former DCCC official noted that the party will likely face questions over why they didn’t funnel more resources to Archie Parnell, the South Carolina Democrat, who had a better night than expected.
“Given the results of the primary, Democrats didn’t have much choice but to lean into this one, otherwise there would have been a lot of criticism for not playing to win,” said Doug Thornell, a former DCCC spokesman.
“I am sure there will be people questioning whether Democrats should have done more in South Carolina,” Thornell said.
“How can you accomplish that without talking up the race? So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
But others within the party were quick to point fingers and vent frustration that the party lost another election while still not coming up with a campaign message.
Representative Seth Moulton called on Democrats to stop “rehashing” the 2016 election and instead use Ossoff’s defeat as a “wake-up call” that they need to start looking to the future.
And progressives like Representative Ro Khanna urged the party to figure out messaging that can address voters worried about the economy.
While many Democrats characterized Georgia as a must-win, Republicans had just as much pressure to keep the seat. A Democratic win would have amplified talk of a potential wave election in 2018, raising serious questions about the impact of Trump on vulnerable Republicans.
While those concerns don’t completely go away for the GOP, Republicans rejoiced over their double victory on Tuesday. The House GOP’s campaign arm touted its wins in a video titled “0 for 4,” while the Republican National Committee sent out a release announcing that Democrats go into 2018 “limping.”