The Democrats’ defeat in Georgia spurred a round of bloodletting on Wednesday as liberal activists bashed their party, frustrated lawmakers lashed out at the Democratic brass and disappointed leaders struggled to explain what went wrong.
The outcome of Tuesday’s special election has only aggravated the internal divisions dogging the Democrats since President Trump’s election and intensified the charged debate about where the party should go — and who should lead it there.
“Doing the post-mortem will take some time,” said Rep. Linda Sánchez (Calif.), vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus.
“It’s a little bit early to stand here and give you a reason why that we were not successful there and … what needs to change.”
Some Democrats were quick to blame party leaders for Jon Ossoff’s loss to Republican Karen Handel in the special runoff election, saying the party failed to learn the 2016 lesson that running against 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 (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 simply “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 House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who remains radioactive in many conservative districts. Ryan, Moulton and a number of younger-generation Democrats tried to topple Pelosi last year for that very reason, and they quickly revived the argument on Wednesday.
“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 the party can reverse its fortunes with the same leaders in place.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s harder,” he said.
Rep. Kathleen Rice, a second-term New York Democrat, told CNN that she’d like to wipe clean the Democrats’ entire leadership slate.
“We need leadership change,” Rice told CNN. “It’s time for Nancy Pelosi to go, and the entire leadership team.”
The lawmakers were not alone in denouncing the top Democratic leaders.
Michael Moore, the filmmaker and liberal activist, attacked the party as having “no message, no plan, no leaders.”
And David Wasserman, an expert on House races at the Cook Political Report, wondered aloud if Pelosi’s celebrated ability to raise money is worth the baggage she brings in conservative districts.
“It’s just extremely difficult for Ds to argue benefits of Nancy Pelosi’s fundraising skills still outweigh cost of her presence in GOP ads,” Wasserman tweeted.
Pelosi’s office fired back, touting her track record not only as a prolific fundraiser, but also as a nimble strategist and potent whip.
“Republican voters don’t get to select the leaders of the Democratic Party,” spokesman Drew Hammill said in an email, noting that Pelosi’s approval rating is similar to that of Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-Wis.).
“Since Gingrich, the politics of personal destruction has been a GOP hallmark,” Hammill added, referring to former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). “They will do this to any and every Democratic leader, because the only thing sustaining their majority is desperation.”
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 said they’re thrilled that victory was within their grasp and optimistic about the message that sends ahead of the 2018 midterms.
“In a normal year, we wouldn’t even have any shot. We have closed the gap dramatically,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
“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.”
Other Democrats noted that Handel’s victory came in a 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 there last year by 23 points.
Still, Trump won the district 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 $24 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.), referring to the House majority.
“If you’re going to put that kind of money in, you need to win ’em.”