Donald Trump has rubbed salt in the wounds of the Democrats – even as the shuddering defeat in Georgia sparked fresh soul-searching within the party about how best to appeal to voters ahead of the 2018 midterms.
Democrats, desperate for a victory after Mr Trump secured the presidency last November, had poured millions of dollars and national support into Jon Ossoff’s campaign. But for all his enthusiasm and energy, the 30 year-old came up short, losing 52-48 to Republican Karen Handel, an experienced local politician.
The defeat in Georgia, the costliest congressional race in history with a bill that topped $56m, was quickly seized on by Mr Trump, whose name and deeds had had hung over the contest. “All the fake news, all the money spent = 0,” he said on Twitter. “Democrats would do much better as a party if they got together with Republicans on Healthcare, tax cuts, security. Obstruction doesn’t work.”
But Democrats needed no prodding from the White House to engage in fresh debate about how to respond after what they had hoped would be a victory that would trigger enough momentum for them to retake the House of Representatives in 18 months. Rather, the loss in Georgia followed defeats in special elections in Kansas and Montana, and came on the same day as a loss in a congressional district in South Carolina.
Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio, who has been a critic of his party’s political strategy, said Democrats needed to recognise they were “toxic” in many parts of the country.
“Our brand is worse than Trump,” Mr Ryan told the New York Times. “We can’t just run against Trump.”
Indeed, the defeat has already reopened many of the debates that emerged during the party’s 2016 primary; should it pursue a progressive agenda as espoused by senator Bernie Sanders, or take the centrist route that Hillary Clinton adopted.
Mr Ossoff certainly went for the latter. Aware that that he was trying to win a seat held by Republicans since 1979, he avoided attacking Mr Trump and sought to portray himself as a moderate, approachable candidate who was mainly interested in local issues. Mr Sanders took an awful long time to endorse him.
Many had hoped that the 30-year-old would adopt a more progressive stance and taken the attack to Mr Trump and his controversial presidency. In this well-heeled, highly educated district north of Atlanta, the New York tycoon only beat Ms Clinton by less than two points in the presidential election, and many believed there were plenty of Republicans who disliked the brash New Yorker enough to be won over.
At the same time, Ms Handel’s campaign was effective in portraying Mr Ossoff as a man whose funding had come from outside of the state and who would become a liberal puppet of House minority leader, Nandy Pelosi.
“Defeating Republicans in districts that they have traditionally held requires doing something drastically different than establishment Democrats have done before – specifically, running on a bold progressive vision and investing heavily in direct voter contact,” said Jim Dean, chair of Democracy for America, told the Associated Press.
Mr Ossoff tried his best to rally his supporters, in a humble concession speech late on Tuesday night.
“This small community in Georgia has become the epicentre of politics for months now, and it has nothing to do with me – it’s about you,” he said. “The fight goes on. The fight is still alive.”
Yet his words will do little to assuage Democrats who cannot understand why they are unable to land an electoral blow against the Republicans, at a time when the President’s approval rating is less than 40 per cent.
Reports suggest that Democrats met on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lick their wounds, and that one congressman, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, circulated a memo outlining the party’s plan for 2018.
Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, said the Democrats needed to think about their approach for 2018. Yet she said the defeat in Georgia may not have been as bad as it appeared.
“This was a heavily Republican area. The numbers really were not there for them,” she told The Independent. “So if they look at the strategies they used for getting people out and tweak them over the coming year, they can still win.”
Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusettsm said on Twitter that the result in Georgia, ““better be a wake-up call for Democrats - business as usual isn’t working”. He added: “Time to stop rehashing 2016 and talk about the future.”
“The Democrats have to be hyper-focused on an economic message that tells people that the Republican Party is all about economic growth for millionaires and billionaires, and the Democratic Party is about economic growth for everybody,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut told MSNBC.
Dan Pfeiffer, who worked as senior advisor to Barack Obama, said the party needed to both reach out to disenchanted Republicans, and fire up those Democrats who failed to turn out in sufficient numbers for Ms Clinton in November.
“To win back a gerrymandered House we have to a) fire up Dems b) convince some number of indys or Obama Trump voters to back a Dem,” he said on Twitter.
“And I don’t think those things are in conflict, because a progressive populist candidate focused on the economy and [the Republican’s healthcare act] can do both.”
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