Circular firing squads for Team Blue

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 26 – This week:

  • Ossoff’s expensive loss casts doubt on Democratic leaders’ competence
  • Circular firing squads for Team Blue
  • Environment still favors Dems; Republicans can’t afford to be complacent

State of the Parties

Let’s face it: Republicans face a big enough challenge already in trying to pass health care and tax reform through Congress. It would have been much harder for them to approach that legislative battle if they had just lost a contested election in a heavily Republican House seat (Georgia-6, a district that Mitt Romney carried by 23 points) in a special election.

Fortunately for them, they don’t have to face that extra challenge. They won last week, finishing a crucial  special election season in which they held off every important Democratic challenge, raised more money than their opponents, and made a strong case that they are just plain better at handling elections than the opposition, even in a hostile political environment.

Everyone knows Republicans have difficulties as a party right now. This includes poor party ratings, a significant though manageable deficit in the generic ballot poll for the 2018 election, and alarmingly low ratings for President Trump.

But if you asked which party had the bigger problems at the moment, it really wouldn’t be an easy question to answer.

Democrats: Yes, Republicans have the wolf at the door this election cycle, as their narrow special election wins continue to illustrate. This is especially true of last Tuesday’s unexpected skin-of-their teeth finish in South Carolina’s Fifth, where Ralph Norman won a heavily Republican seat amid low turnout by only 3 percent over Democrat Archie Parnell.

Yet so far, the Republicans have kept the wolf at bay whenever and wherever it mattered, and by just enough, retaining all the House seats they won in November in four contested elections to fill vacancies created by Trump administration appointments. Their crucial victory came last week in the most expensive House race in history, between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel.

Democrats, on the other hand, can’t seem to buy, beg, cheat or steal their way to any sort of meaningful win that would capitalize on the aforementioned Republican problems. Yes, they repeatedly came closer than they should have, racking up “moral victories.” But as the Polish chessmaster Savielly Tartakower observed long ago, moral victories do not count.

Almost everything has gone wrong for the Dems, not just in terms of the results but also strategic planning and keeping their electoral base happy with their leadership. This makes their current round of Democratic recriminations especially damaging.

Ossoff’s four-point loss was not as close as that of Parnell — a surprise, and an especially painful one. So much money (more than $30 million), time and effort was wasted on the party’s boy wonder, the most expensive failure in congressional election history.

Also, because Democrats’ hopes all over the country had been placed in an Ossoff victory in a way they hadn’t in earlier special election defeats, there is an additional demoralizing factor for the base, evidenced by the tears at Ossoff’s election night party. The election was not terribly meaningful in terms of governing power (what’s one more House seat?), but it was supposed to be a symbol for a resurgent and youthful Democratic Party. Instead, Democrats are now bemoaning their status as the “old folks home” that Harry Reid warned they were becoming upon his retirement.

And so the Democrats have formed up their circular firing squad, and the bullets are flying in all directions.

Given the facility with which Republicans cast Ossoff as a soldier for Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi during the Georgia-6 campaign, some House Democrats are starting to wonder whether she needs to be thrown overboard. (Not that she easily could be, by the way.)

But if they decide Pelosi is bad PR, what are rank and file Democrats to think of the fundamental the competence and even good intentions of their party leaders? Many progressives still believe that the party committee cheated Bernie Sanders and handed the 2016 presidential nomination to a clear loser — a wound that President Trump was all too ready to put a salty finger into over the weekend. But now, under new management, the DNC and the DCCC prioritized Ossoff’s losing effort over other special election candidates who might have actually had better chances of winning if given a fraction of the millions that were burned on the young novice’s campaign.

The obvious illustration: Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., a member of the DCCC leadership team, was quoted asking who Archie Parnell was, just days before he came closer to winning a Republican House seat than Ossoff ultimately did. Ouch.

Democrats are, as a result, both demoralized by defeat and losing faith in their party leaders at the same time. The political environment favors them, and yet they are bitter, increasingly angry, and near to forgetting what victory tastes like.

Republicans: On the other side, Republicans are obviously delighted by Handel’s victory — and Norman’s, of course, which they and the Democrats had wrongly taken for granted.

Yes, Democrats came closer than they probably should have.

But the unbroken Republican streak of victories creates a serious danger of complacency. And Republicans are in no position to be complacent, because their underperformance in all of these elections in Republican seats points to an energized Democratic base.

Republicans can win a few important seats in special elections by pouring resources into them, but they won’t be able to fend off if the Democrats’ evident enthusiasm advantage persists and materializes in all 435 House districts next fall.

It must first of all be remembered, as we have noted repeatedly, that after Barack Obama’s 2008 election Republicans failed to win a single special congressional elections for more than a year. Their first win, in fact, was the Senate win by Scott Brown in January 2010. Yet the lack of early Republican victories in special elections did not stop Team Red from shattering the Democratic congressional majority in the historic November 2010 midterm. Nothing in the current environment suggests that such a feat would be impossible for Democrats to repeat in 2018.

So no, Ossoff’s defeat does not predict much about, let alone settle, the coming midterm House election. That election seems destined to hang on future events, whatever they might hold. Still, it does have an important effect in helping stem potential Republican losses next year.

First, had the Democrat been victorious, it would have had a chilling effect on GOP incumbents deciding whether to run for re-election. Nobody likes to go through the motions of a losing campaign, after all, and a Democrat victory in Georgia-6 might have caused many incumbent Republicans to see the writing on the wall. Retirements open up big opportunities for the opposing party, since it is nearly always easier for an incumbent to hold down a seat that is even mildly swingy. Party leaders are constantly looking for ways to entice as many members as possible to stay in their place — in the case of House members, especially, to avoid running for higher offices or quitting politics for the private sector. An Ossoff win might have scared a handful of Republican House members into retirement, giving Democrats excellent chances in as many as ten or twenty additional seats.

Second, an Ossoff victory would have made it harder to recruit high quality candidates for existing open seats and for challenges to incumbent Democrats. Nothing kills of a political rising star like a defeat, and every so-called rising star knows it. If the environment were really so bad that a Democrat could win in a place like Georgia-6, then many of these “rising stars” might have decided they’re better off delaying their rise for two years.

With their House victories in Kansas, Montana, South Carolina and Georgia, the national Republican Party has demonstrated everything the Democrats lack. Their strategic planning is at least adequate. No one can question their allocation of party resources. Candidates and potential candidates can take heart in the fact that the party’s leaders went to bat for all of their candidates, and did it in a smart way that conserved resources and got out the Republican vote in a challenging time.

Republicans’ future in 2018 hangs largely on whether they can legislate their way to the kind of broad-based prosperity that eluded Obama throughout his presidency. That is to say, they need to produce results that make people happy in order to prevent another voter rebellion like the ones that took place in 2006 and 2010.

This may begin with whether they can look beyond short-term political considerations and be bold with their Obamacare repeal bill, producing something that makes the average insurance buyer’s life better. If they cannot produce this, they will be in trouble next fall, no matter how many big-money special elections they manage to defend between now and then.