Democrats take a look in the mirror

After the Republicans held onto a series of congressional special election seats amid widespread opposition to their healthcare plans, what’s the outlook for both parties, the President, and – ultimately – the 2018 midterms?

The special election last week to succeed President Trump’s new Health Secretary Tom Price as Representative for Georgia’s sixth congressional district was the most expensive congressional election in history.

It also turned out to be a huge let-down for Democrats, who were increasingly convinced their candidate, Jon Ossoff, was set to flip a district that had been held by the GOP since 1979, when former Speaker Newt Gingrich won the seat. Last year, Price had been re-elected by nearly 24 points.

Despite a surge in Democrats’ turnout, their opponents’ turnout proved just as strong and Ossoff lost by almost four points. And even though Ossoff significantly ate into Price’s majority, it was Karen Handel who came to the House, giving it the current 241-193 Republican majority.

It also meant that Republicans are four-for-four in this year’s special elections – including in Montana, where their winner was sentenced to community service as the result of an election-eve assault on a reporter.

The President wasted no time celebrating Handel’s win, telling a campaign-style rally in Iowa that evening that the Democrats “thought they were going to win last night in Atlanta. The truth is people love us, all of us. They love us. They haven’t figured it out yet.”

Yet Trump himself had only narrowly won the district in last year’s presidential election, giving Democrats hope they could start a trend that could carry them to a mini-wave and control of the House in next year’s midterm elections.

There’s still a long way to go, but it has to be said that outcome seems at the mercy of an even more heightened sense of political uncertainty.

 

Sick

But the most important backdrop at the moment is the Republicans’ controversial proposed healthcare legislation – with the aforementioned Tom Price as both its public faces – which appears to be set for an imminent vote in the Senate, despite widespread protests against a bill which was put together behind closed doors.

And it’s going to be a close-run thing. Senate leader Mitch McConnell wants to have a vote by the end of this week before Congress breaks for the July 4 recess, fearful of the reaction Senators will get in their home districts. Protests by disabled people in Washington recently are likely just a taste of what would come.

There have been many heartbreaking personal stories shared illustrating the potential effect of “Trumpcare” – which has been criticised as simply a huge transfer of wealth to the richest Americans. But however the vote goes, it could act as a spur to Democrats, either redoubling their efforts to push back against an unpopular measure, or showing them what can be possible through grassroots action.

Protests against the Republicans’ healthcare proposals are an echo of the Tea Party’s activism against Obamacare

As for the ongoing difficulties surrounding Trump himself; according to the Washington Post the President is now receiving daily briefings from his personal lawyers on the Russia investigation, and has hinted special counsel Robert Mueller might even be removed, describing him as “very bothersome.”

William Falk writes in The Week that:

Mueller might find no wrongdoing, but if he charges that Trump aides engaged in collusion, quid pro quos, and/or financial transactions with Russia, or concludes that the president obstructed justice, we will be thrust into a constitutional crisis. Trump will likely denounce any attempt to force him from office as “a coup.” Tens of millions of furious partisans will believe him. What happens then? Our norms, institutions, and the rule of law will be sorely tested, and we’ll find out what remains of the ties that bind us.

For the Democrats, this sort of protracted chaos should be easy electoral pickings; yet they seem to be struggling to seize the initiative. Despite the remarkable sums of money attracted to the Georgia contest, last month was the party’s worst May for fundraising since 2003 – among the challenges for new DNC chair Tom Perez.

Amid the reality check, there’s a sense that a revamp is needed. Paul Waldman in The Week wrote that Republicans are just better at marketing than Democrats are right now, and that “when people say Democrats don’t have an agenda, what they really mean is that they don’t have a bunch of simplified messaging and pithy slogans that describe their agenda.”

In the post-Georgia analysis, and despair about the state of the Democratic brand, there was plenty of finger-pointing at the party’s leadership, specifically House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi – a target for several anti-Ossoff ads. Politico quoted one unnamed Democratic operative as saying: “We no longer have a party caucus capable of riding this wave. We have 80-year-old leaders and 90-year-old ranking members. This isn’t a party. It’s a giant assisted living center.”

Pelosi, by the way, is only 77.

But maybe all’s not lost…

In the first few special elections in 2010, the Democrats won three tough districts, even as the President’s plans for healthcare reform were stirring up grassroots Republican opposition through the Tea Party movement. Of course, that optimism didn’t last and the Democrats were badly beaten in that year’s midterms; “shellacked” as President Obama described it.

It remains to be seen whether that pattern might be repeated for the party currently in power. It was already going to be a hard road to climb for the Democrats, even without their internal difficulties, and a new analysis by the AP on the effect of political gerrymandering at last year’s election certainly doesn’t help.

Trump’s core support seems, for now, to be holding and that’s unlikely to change at least until the effects of the healthcare changes – if they pass – trickle down. The Democrats, meanwhile, can certainly easily galvanize their supporters to oppose an unpopular President, but as strategists Bruce Reed and Rahm Emanuel wrote recently, Democrats “don’t just need to choose the right battles, they also need to choose credible candidates who can win them.”

But maybe if the target at this stage is to take control of the House, their focus should be more “anti-Ryan” than “anti-Trump” and finding an economic message that resonates beyond just the polarizing figure of the President.

Talking of which, ironworker and local activist Randy Bryce is mounting an unlikely challenge to GOP House Leader Paul Ryan in his Wisconsin district. And even if Bryce is eventually unsuccessful, he has at least proved one thing: that the art of making an effective, virally resonant campaign commercial hasn’t been completely lost.

In the run-up to next year, Democrats, it seems, are going to need to find a way to get local, and take their message to voters in simpler terms.

About Steve McGookin

Steve McGookin is a former journalist and US news editor at the Financial Times in London and New York. He has written about every US Presidential election since 1988.