Georgia 6 omni-post

Lots of good stuff.  I think I’ll start with Drum, though:

At the risk of sounding a little too Kevin Drummish, everyone should settle down about Jon Ossoff’s loss last night. Also all the other Democratic losses recently. They just don’t tell us very much.

On the one hand, Democrats did a lot better than they had recently. On the other hand, parties always do better in open seats than they do running against incumbents. The “swings” of +20 or +15 or whatever are nice to see, but they don’t mean a whole lot.

It’s also way too early to draw any conclusions anyway. Keep in mind that Republicans haven’t even done anything yet. Twelve months from now, who knows what they will have accomplished? Passed a suicidal health care bill? A huge tax cut for the rich? Gotten us into a two-front war in the Middle East? Withdrawn from NATO? Declared that lead is healthy and mandated that it be put back in gasoline? Who the hell knows?

Yes!  Sure, there’s probably some lessons, but we should be very cautious and circumspect in them.  The truth is, far too many political watchers are obsessed with elections and part of that obsession means making way too much out of a few special elections.

For example, those somehow ready to crucify Nancy Pelosi for the Democratic losses:

Among Democrats in Washington, the setback in Georgia revived or deepened a host of existing grievances about the party, accentuating tensions between moderate lawmakers and liberal activists and prompting some Democrats to question the leadership and political strategy of Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader.

A small group of Democrats who have been critical of Ms. Pelosi in the past again pressed her to step down on Wednesday. And in a private meeting of Democratic lawmakers, Representative Tony Cárdenas of California, Ms. Pelosi’s home state, suggested the party should have a more open conversation about her effect on its political fortunes.

Please!  As Drum points out, “Pelosi!” is just a convenient stand-in for “evil, liberal, national Democrats” for Republican voters.  Seriously, I’d love to hear real things GA-06 voters had to say about Pelosi that would be any different from what you’d get about any prominent Democratic politician.

Yglesias makes the case that Democrats need more of a positive policy agenda:

One thing they might want to try is developing a substantive policy agenda to run on. They came close this time, and they’ll just need to put forth an attractive package for voters in the 2018 midterms…

Karen Handel didn’t argue that the Republican Party’s health care bill is a good idea (it’s very unpopular) or that tax cuts for millionaires should be the country’s top economic priority (another policy that polls dismally). Instead, her campaign and its allies buried Ossoff under a pile of what basically amounts to nonsense — stuff about Kathy Griffin, stuff about Samuel L. Jackson, stuff about his home being just over the district line, stuff about him having raised money from out of state — lumped together under the broad heading that he’s an “outsider.”

Much of this was unfair or ridiculous. And the stuff that wasn’t unfair — like the location of his home — is honestly pretty silly. None of this has anything to do with the lives of actual people living in the suburbs of Atlanta or anywhere else…

If your opponents are unpopular enough, it’s certainly possible to win elections this way. But especially for the party that has a more difficult time inspiring its supporters to turn out to vote, that’s an ominous sign. Right now on health care and many other issues, Democrats suffer from a cacophony of white papers and a paucity of unity around any kind of vision or story they want to paint of what is wrong with America today and what is the better country they want to build for the future. And until they do, they’re going to struggle to mobilize supporters in the way they need to win tough races.

I’m sympathetic to this argument.  Yet, ultimately, I think (sadly) policy matters so very little.  That said, Democrats surely can use it more effective in a symbolic manner.

Vox’s Jeff Stein, meanwhile, brings the pessimism:

But a basic fact of the race — which its Republican voting history doesn’t negate — is that this was a district that looked prepared to revolt against President Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton only lost the district by one point in 2016, and voters here supported Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in the Republican primary. Ossoff was ahead in polling at times, and was supposed to benefit from an upsurge in turnout from an energized liberal voter base and massive canvassing operation. In the first round of voting this April, Ossoff came within a few points of clearing the 50 points he needed to avoid Tuesday’s runoff.

What the Georgia special election shows is that House and Senate Republicans still have powerful tools for beating back Democratic challengers, including appeals to an in-group identity and an avalanche of dark-money attack ads. [emphasis mine]

Yeah, sadly, that’s pretty true, too.

John Cassidy, also, brings the pessimism:

While many Democrats wanted the race to be a referendum on Trump, Republican ads framed it in a more traditional way: as a race between a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat. The G.O.P. high command depicted Ossoff as a puppet of Hollywood celebrities and Nancy Pelosi, who, according to the Journal-Constitution poll, has a ninety-one-per-cent disapproval rating among local Republicans. Although Ossoff did his best to portray himself as a non-ideological moderate—he refused to endorse higher taxes on the rich and said that he would work with the Trump Administration on issues that benefitted the district—the Republican barrage proved effective, something Handel acknowledged in her victory speech…

In a district as red as Georgia’s Sixth, the disheartening truth is that Ossoff probably wouldn’t have done better had he run to the left. While many Republicans have some misgivings about Trump, they have even more serious misgivings about voting for a Democrat. According to that same opinion poll in the Journal-Constitution, just one in three Republican voters said that they were supporting Handel to express support for Trump. What motivated them, they said, were traditional Republican issues: taxes, government spending, and illegal immigration.

Back to optimism and Dave Leonhardt with a nice sports analogy:

Politically, Democrats are doing fine for a party out of power. It obviously would have been better to have won one of last night’s races, especially given the hopes in Georgia. But the party still has a real chance to retake the House next year. A disappointing loss doesn’t change that fact.

I hesitate to use sports analogies, because a lot of readers are not sports fans. I hope you’ll permit one in this case, though, because it’s the most clarifying comparison I’m aware of.

For years, sports fans and athletes believed that some teams “knew how to win” — and found out a way to pull out close games — while others tended to choke. It certainly seemed to make sense to anyone who watched or played sports. You can see how the analogy applies to recent politics, right?

In sports, it turns out that the conventional wisdom about knowing how to win was mostly wrong. Teams that won a lot of very close games didn’t possess some special sauce for victory.

Instead, they were benefiting from a combination of circumstance and good fortune. Winning a bunch of close games had little predictive value. In fact, teams with a pattern of winning close games were also good candidates to start losing more than their win-loss record would have suggested.

And, finally, Drum’s caveat still in mind, I’ll conclude with this nicely analytical, optimistic take from David Wasserman (probably the one link to click through and read all of):

The good news for Republicans is that swarms of national media and images of Nancy Pelosi still motivate their base. The bad news for Republicans is that they can’t count on this type of high turnout across the board in November 2018. In fact, it would be shocking if any House race drew a third of the $55 million spent on the GA-06 special election. And that means Democrats’ enthusiasm edge should be wider in most places than it was in GA-06.

Second, overhyped special elections can often be lagging—rather than leading—indicators. In June 2006, Republicans retained a San Diego seat in a very expensive special election five months before losing the House. In May 2010, Democrats held an ancestrally Democratic seat in southwestern Pennsylvania six months before losing their majority. For a moment, tradition held. Today, both those seats are represented by the opposite party…

Third, believe it or not, GA-06 wasn’t the only special election held this year. Although it’s true Democrats have agonizingly yet to capture a red district, they have outperformed their “generic” share of the vote significantly in every contest. Measured against the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index (PVI), Democrats have outperformed the partisan lean of their districts by an average of eight points in the past five elections…

If Democrats were to outperform their “generic” share by eight points across the board in November 2018, they would pick up 80 seats. Of course, that won’t happen because Republican incumbents will be tougher to dislodge than special election nominees. But these results fit a pattern that should still worry GOP incumbents everywhere, regardless of Trump’s national approval rating and the outcome of the healthcare debate in Congress.

Put another way, Democratic candidates in these elections have won an average of 68 percent of the votes Hillary Clinton won in their districts, while Republican candidates have won an average of 54 percent of Trump’s votes. That’s an enthusiasm gap that big enough to gravely imperil the Republican majority next November—even if it didn’t show up in “the special election to end all special elections.” [emphases mine]

So, now that all these special elections are over I do think it is safe to conclude that Democrats have a real shot at taking back the House in 2018.  Likely?  No.  Real shot, yes.  In short, same thing I would’ve suggested before the special elections :-).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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