Democratic leaders in the House are taking heat after the party’s disappointing special-election defeat in Georgia.
Some lawmakers were quick to blame their leadership for Jon Ossoff’s defeat to Republican Karen Handel, saying the party failed to learn the 2016 lesson that running against President Trump without a positive message of your own is not enough to win elections.
“We’d better take a good, long, strong look in the mirror and realize that the problem is us, it’s the party,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said Wednesday morning as he left a closed-door meeting of the Democratic Caucus in the Capitol.
He described Ossoff as a “great” candidate who “still couldn’t carry the national baggage of the Democratic Party.”
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) echoed Ryan’s argument.
“We need to have a plan, we need to have a vision, we need to tell Americans why Democrats will be better, not just why Trump is bad,” Moulton said. “And I don’t think we’re doing enough of that, and I think that’s evident in this [Georgia] race.”
Republicans relied on a strategy of tying Ossoff to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who remains radioactive in many conservative districts.
“Those are still effective ads that hurt our candidate,” said Ryan, 43, who had challenged Pelosi for the Democratic leader spot after last November’s elections.
“Everybody knows where I stand on this. … My position hasn’t changed.”
Moulton, who beat a Democratic incumbent to win his seat, is skeptical reverse their fortunes with the same leaders in place.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s harder,” he said.
Pelosi, leaving Wednesday’s caucus meeting, declined to comment. But her spokesman defended the San Francisco liberal on Wednesday as the party’s best fundraiser, strategist and whip.
“Rs will target any effective Dem leader,” Drew Hammill tweeted. “Ridiculous logic that Rs get to pick Dem ldrs.”
Many Democrats, including top leaders, quickly pushed back against the internal criticism, noting that Georgia’s 6th District, before this year, was safely Republican. While disappointed with Tuesday’s loss, they’re thrilled that victory was within their grasp and optimistic about the message that sends ahead of the 2018 midterms.
“Republicans have held this seat for 37 years,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.), deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “In a normal year, we wouldn’t even have any shot. We have closed the gap dramatically.
“I mean, they’re the ones that better be worried.”
Still, the frustration among rank-and-file Democrats was visible on Wednesday, with many lawmakers exasperated that Democrats have now lost four competitive special elections in the Trump era.
“Close is only good in horseshoes,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). “A loss is a loss is a loss, and there’s no excuses.”
Democrats noted that Handel’s victory came in a Georgia district that has been held by the GOP for decades. Former Rep. Tom Price, who left Congress earlier this year to lead Trump’s Health and Human Services Department, won reelection last year by 23 points.
Still, Trump won it by only a razor-thin margin. With the president’s approval rating well underwater, the Democrats felt they had a chance of scoring an upset, and outside donors flooded Ossoff’s war chest with almost $25 million, helping to make the race the most expensive in House history.
Many Democrats cautioned that it’s still too early to glean any definitive lessons from the history-making contest. But some are also wondering how the party could spend so much money and come up empty-handed.
“I think it probably does show that certainly momentum’s at our back, but there aren’t any moral victories in this. It’s 218 or nothing,” said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.).
“If you’re going to put that kind of money in you need to win ‘em.”