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Don't sugarcoat it — Ossoff's loss is a big disappointment, and a bad sign, for Democrats

Democrats need to outperform Hillary Clinton to take back the House. Ossoff did worse than her.

Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Democrats faced yet another disappointment in Tuesday’s special elections, as Jon Ossoff, their candidate in the runoff for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, fell short and Republican Karen Handel came out on top.

Meanwhile, in the much lower-profile race for another open House seat in South Carolina’s Fifth District, Democrat Archie Parnell came far closer to winning than expected in a heavily Republican territory. In the end, he lost to GOP nominee Ralph Norman.

The results make Democrats 0-for-4 in the House districts vacated by Republican members of Congress who have joined the Trump administration.

But it’s the Ossoff defeat that’s particularly painful for the party. Though former Rep. Tom Price (R) repeatedly cruised to victory in this district, Donald Trump only topped Hillary Clinton in it by 1.5 percentage points. This meant that, on the presidential level, the district was by far the most favorable to Democrats of those four open seats.

Democrats hoped that five months of a chaotic Trump administration would galvanize their voters to turn out, and send a message to Republicans in Congress that they should abandon the president or risk losing their jobs. And the liberal grassroots spent accordingly, showering Ossoff with money.

In the end, though, Republican outside groups spent millions too, and the GOP effectively turned out their own voters in what became the most expensive House of Representatives race ever.

The 2018 midterms are still more than 16 months away, and a great deal in politics obviously can and will change before then. But Ossoff’s defeat suggests that, if the whole House of Representatives was up for election today, Democrats would likely fall short of retaking it. Here are three things to take away from the results.

1) To retake the House, Democrats need to do better than Clinton did against Trump. Ossoff didn’t.

Democrats have found comfort in several of their losses in open seat House elections this year, because the candidates they’ve put up came far closer to winning than Hillary Clinton did in those districts. Here are the comparisons (the 2016 numbers used were tallied by Stephen Wolf at Daily Kos Elections):

  • In Kansas’s Fourth District, which Trump won by 27.2 points, the Republican candidate won by just 6.8 points.
  • In Montana, which Trump won by 20.6 points, the Republican candidate for the district that encompasses the whole state won by just 6.1 points.
  • Now, in South Carolina’s Fifth District, which Trump won by 18.5 points, it appears the Republican candidate won by a little over 3 points.

All of this seems very encouraging indeed for Democrats.

But then there’s the Ossoff race.

Donald Trump won Georgia’s Sixth District by 1.5 points. And though the votes aren’t all counted yet, the Upshot’s projections as of Tuesday evening suggest Karen Handel will outperform Trump, winning the district by about 4 points.

That’s a big problem for the Democratic Party. This race was indisputably the highest-profile contest, and therefore perhaps the most like what we’d expect the 2018 midterms to be — Republicans weren’t caught sleeping, like they were in a few of these other races.

Furthermore — and crucially — Donald Trump won the median House district by about 3.5 points.

That means that if Republican candidates in high-profile contested races slightly outperform Trump or even slightly underperform him, the GOP will keep the House. Handel’s victory shows that, at this point, that’s still a definite possibility.

2) It doesn’t look like there’s a furious national backlash over the Republican health care bill — not yet, at least

The American Health Care Act polls horrifically. In the House’s first attempt at passing it, back in March, moderates shied away from the bill at the last moment.

Then, when the GOP regrouped and passed an amended version through the House in May, Democrats responded with a song they hoped would foreshadow the 2018 midterms: “Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, hey, goo-oodbye.”

And yet health care never dominated the Ossoff-Handel race. While Ossoff did criticize the GOP bill from time to time, he overall preferred a message emphasizing his credentials on cutting spending.

Handel, meanwhile, claimed in an interview with Breitbart News that the GOP health bill “hasn’t been that much of an issue on the ground.”

Perhaps the affluent Sixth District of Georgia was never the most likely place to rebel against Republican plans to slash Medicaid. And this doesn’t preclude a backlash against the bill should it actually be signed into law and start affecting Americans’ lives. But at the moment, “hey hey hey, goodbye” certainly seems premature.

3) Democrats haven’t found a winning formula

Over the ensuing months, Democrats will furiously debate how much of Ossoff’s loss was because of his inherent shortcomings, how much was due to his messaging choices, and how much is due to the quirks of this particular district.

It’s long been clear that Ossoff had some serious weaknesses as a candidate. Months ago, a Democratic political consultant told me that he thought Ossoff would lose because, as a 30-year-old former congressional staffer who didn’t even live in the district, he lacked both the résumé and the local ties that most successful candidates should have.

Still, he was a fresh-faced outsider, he was easily the strongest Democratic candidate actually running in this district, and he caught fire among the party’s grassroots donors, who showered him with cash. Democrats hoped that this enthusiasm, combined with a hoped-for backlash against Trump and the GOP, could carry him to victory despite those flaws. Now, however, some will surely argue that candidates with more traditional résumés — not youngsters inspired by anti-Trump animus — are better-suited to winning.

Then, there will clearly be some second-guessing about Ossoff’s messaging choices. He didn’t focus overwhelmingly on President Trump or the GOP health bill (two topics that Handel also largely avoided). And he certainly didn’t run as an economic populist.

Instead, he emphasized his willingness to cut wasteful spending, and criticized Handel for her role in a five-year-old controversy in which the Susan G. Komen foundation, where she was a top official at the time, cut off breast cancer screening funding for Planned Parenthood.

Ossoff surely had consultants who took polls and conducted focus groups that together suggested that this was the message that worked best in this district. Perhaps that’s the case. But now that he’s lost, Democratic candidates will face increased pressure to try something different in the races to come.

Finally, there’s the matter of whether districts like the Georgia Sixth are the best pickup opportunities for Democrats.

Since Trump’s victory, there’s been a debate among Democrats about whether the party’s best chances for retaking power lie in improving their performance in areas full of educated, well-off white suburbanites, or whether the party is better off making a case to the white working class. To oversimplify, the Hillary Clinton wing of the party tends to like the former theory, and the Bernie Sanders wing tends to prefer the latter.

Ossoff’s disappointing performance is a blow to the Clinton wing’s theory. Despite Trump’s sinking approval ratings, the Republican candidate still won an affluent suburban district that Trump himself barely pulled it out in.

But the Sanders wing doesn’t have the clearest-cut counter-theory either. Sanders-friendly candidates like Rob Quist in Montana and James Thompson in Kansas have done better than Hillary Clinton did in their respective districts — but so did Archie Parnell, the former Goldman Sachs employee who lost the South Carolina race Tuesday night.

All special elections are on different turf and have different issues and candidate dynamics at play. The one thing that is clear, though, is that Democrats haven’t found a winning formula for victory yet.