Jon Ossoff’s loss in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional election on Tuesday isn’t just a disappointment for liberals. It’s a bright red warning sign, a blaring siren that should alert Democrats everywhere that they will not take back Congress without a radical change in direction.
That, at least, is the position of some on the left.
“Ossoff represents the blockhead mentality of so many of the corporate Democrats,” said the National Nurses United spokesperson Charles Idelson. The organization advocates for moving the Democratic party to the left, and Idelson argued Ossoff lost in part by rejecting single-payer health care and by running a scrupulously centrist campaign on economics. “This is the time to recognize the bankruptcy of the old methods of the Democratic establishment.”
After Trump’s election this fall, Democrats found themselves further out of power than they'd been in decades. But the party could console itself with some very real reasons for optimism: Their candidate won the popular vote. Donald Trump's approval ratings were historically low for a new president. And between the women's march and an outpouring of activism, there were signs of a resurgent energy on the left.
It looked to some like the party could retake at least one branch in Congress in 2018 just by staying the course. “I don’t think Democrats want a new direction,” House Minority Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said on CBS Face the Nation the week after the election.
But since then, Democrats have lost four straight special elections in races for Congress. Top party leaders are defending those losses as representing improvements on the party's baseline. But they at least to appear to suggest that winning the House will be harder than it first seemed. And panic is beginning to seep in.
The left: the Democratic Party needs to recognize the depths of its crisis
“Ossoff ran away from the resistance and tried to appeal to the so-called middle of the road voters. It was Republican versus Republican-lite,” said Murshed Zaheed, Credo’s political director and a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV). “That should send a warning shot to the Democratic leadership in DC on both sides of Congress: Just taking the approach that partial resistance is going to work is not going to work.”
Like other progressive groups, Credo argues that the party’s congressional leaders should channel the anti-Trump fury gripping their base — while embracing much more left-wing economic policy proposals — if they want to take the House in 2018. They point to Ossoff’s 4-point loss in a district that Clinton only lost by 1 as clear evidence of their theory.
Since Clinton’s loss, some of the younger up-and-coming members of the Democratic caucus have started moving the party to the left, at least on some issues, in response to the demands of their grassroots base. More than half of Senate Democrats now support a $15-an-hour minimum wage. For the first time, a majority of House Democrats are co-sponsoring Michigan Rep. John Conyers’s single-payer health care bill. Bernie Sanders is expected to release his own revised Medicare-for-all bill soon.
But the left argues that the entrenched party leadership has yet to recognize, or adequately respond to, the depths of the Democrats’ crisis. “There are deep concerns with Democrats who are not going all-in on the resistance,” Zaheed said. “Some of the leaders in the Democratic Party want to leverage the energy coming out of the resistance and co-opt its brand, without fulling committing themselves to the actual resistance.”
A key part of the left’s critique is not just that Senate Democrats haven’t moved far enough left, but that they’ve repeated Clinton’s mistakes from the campaign by focusing on Trump’s scandals instead of honing their firepower on the GOP policy agenda. (Ossoff’s ads primarily attacked Karen Handel for her record at the Susan G. Komen Foundation, where she tried to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood for cancer screenings, and promised to “root out corruption.”)
“Ossoff never put forward any kind of vision for how he would improve people’s lives,” said Corbin Trent, spokesperson for a PAC called Justice Democrats that’s trying to run primary candidates against Democrats. He noted that more than $20 million was spent on Ossoff to no avail. “You couldn’t get clearer evidence that this strategy is not working for either the American people or the party.”
Establishment Democrats see encouraging signs from the special elections
Establishment Democrats will tell you losing was part of the process. Their hopes for winning the House majority in 2018 haven’t changed, nor has their confidence that they can do it.
“We have enormous excitement amongst Democrats,” Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden said. “The lesson we have to take from these races is that Democratic participation is up across these districts.”
After losing Georgia, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official campaign arm of the party, sent a message to members and staff that the “House is in play.”
But there’s a divide deepening among Democrats on Capitol Hill. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s approval ratings fall far below Trump’s historically low numbers (to be fair, so do Paul Ryan’s). Pelosi hasn’t been liked for a long time, and it’s been used against her party’s candidates time and time again.
Georgia’s special election was no different. Republican Super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund beamed about using the veteran Democratic leader as a direct attack on Ossoff, calling it one of its most effective tactics, blasting the airwaves with ads tying Ossoff to Pelosi and the national Democratic Party. Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Joe Crowley of New York called the ads “disgusting,” but Republicans just saw them to be effective.
"When asked, over 60 percent of voters preferred a congressman who would work with Paul Ryan, while only 28 percent chose Nancy Pelosi," according to a memo from Congressional Leadership Fund executive director Corry Bliss. "This became a focal point in our messaging, as well as other outside groups and the Handel campaign itself. CLF never deviated from the goal of defining Ossoff as a dishonest liberal."
For some Democrats, this line of attack hit too close to home. It’s eerily reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid just seven months ago — an entrenched establishment candidate that proved to be too disconnected from the direction of the party to win. A handful of Democrats in Congress have already started pointing fingers at Pelosi and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for failing on the same merits.
Pelosi is too toxic, Rep. Filemon Vela of Texas, first elected to Congress in 2012, told Vox on Wednesday.
“To me it’s real simple: The perception of leader Pelosi is so negative that we are not going to be able to walk away from that,” Vela said. “In order to take the House majority back you have to be able to win swing districts ... the perceptions of the leader are so entrenched, they’re not going to change, and the Republican Party is going to continue to spend millions and millions of dollars to tie the leader, who is very unpopular, to those areas.”
But putting a new face to a broken message won’t get Democrats very far, Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington — a “Bernie Democrat” — pointed out. Instead she thinks, resources would be better spent to craft a cohesive agenda to run on.
“The question is less about her and more about the caucus and party,” Jayapal said. “What do we stand for? Can we articulate that? Nancy Pelosi has done such a good job at leading the caucus on so many levels, but people do say, what do you stand for?”
Jayapal said the party needs to align with “core concepts” like minimum wage and health care for all. “What we have seen in some races is that part of the energy right now is the energy of people who have not participated generally,” Jayapal said. “Did that move to the center drop off votes to the left? We need a clear message of what we stand for.”
So which is it? Is Pelosi the problem? The message? Both? Congressional Democrats can’t seem agree — and the discord will undoubtedly prove challenging to overcome in every race ahead. Many close to Democratic leadership even say it’s neither, sticking to the establishment message of writing off the narrow losses as victories.
“Nancy Pelosi was the leader of the House Democrats in November of 2016 when we lost that seat by 23 points — just now we lost it by only 5,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, who is close to leadership. “I don’t see that correlation.”
The only consensus: “it sucks to lose”
What’s clear is that while losing on Tuesday was not the end of the world for Democrats — they came a lot closer to seats that were virtually unattainable just last November — missing the mark by a narrow margin isn’t going to cut it in 2018.
“It sucks to lose,” Swalwell said. “I hate losing, especially knowing who we are fighting for. But I am confident going forward that if we keep fighting for districts like Georgia 6, we will be in the majority by 2018.”
How Democrats will get there remains to be seen. Every critique on messaging or politics is contradicted by a different faction of the party. Already the DCCC is looking for ways to restrategize around the special elections and thread a needle between the divisions. They have sent emails out to members asking for advice, Vela said — noting that this kind of outreach to sitting members was new.
After Tuesday’s losses, the DCCC sent out a memo reasserting the push for 2018 and laying out a recruitment push for the weeks ahead.
“Let me be clear: we will never take anything for granted. We face an unprecedented amount of Republican special interest money that will stop at nothing to retain their grip on power. We will be outspent, but we will not be outhustled,” Ben Ray Lujan, the DCCC chair wrote in the memo.
Meanwhile, congressional Democrats wary of making any bold statements against leadership are waiting for more data on the special elections before passing judgements.
“You have to do a lot of post mortem analysis to figure out what was successful for our candidate and what things were not so successful for our candidate — and what were the things that their candidate did that was successful and not so successful,” Rep. Linda Sanchez of California said.