ANALYSIS: Democrats face disarray after going bust in Georgia

It was supposed to be the race that won Democrats their groove back

ByABC News
June 21, 2017, 12:44 PM

— -- It was supposed to be the race that would give Democrats their groove back, a chance to claim blue turf inside red territory and signal the political perils of Trumpism in districts across the country.

But Democrats got the opposite of what they bargained for. Far from putting the Republicans on notice, Democrats' disappointing results in Georgia's 6th Congressional District are exacerbating tensions in the party as leaders sift through conflicting evidence about why they lost.

The Democratic Party's all-in approach to Jon Ossoff's candidacy backfired so badly that the big winner was the man who was the target of all the organizing energy on the left. President Trump capped the night declaring outright victory not just in this election but for the slate of contests held in the Trump era.

"Well, the Special Elections are over and those that want to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN are 5 and O! All the Fake News, all the money spent = 0," the president tweeted overnight, apparently grouping his own election with the four House races held to fill seats vacated by his appointees.

Senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway was more terse: "Laughing my #Ossoff," she tweeted.

Ossoff became a vessel for national anger at Trump and a test case with implications far beyond a single House race. The well-educated Atlanta suburbs weren't particularly friendly to Trump in November, and the symbolism of a Democrat's taking a seat once held by Newt Gingrich and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was an irresistible lure for Democrats across the country.

Ossoff, a 30-year-old blank slate of a candidate with scant political experience who happened not to live in the district he was seeking to represent, gladly took Hollywood and Manhattan dollars without adopting fiery anti-Trump messaging or Bernie Sanders–style progressivism and campaigned as an even-keeled moderate.

Fueled by fundraising that blew away records, the formula seemed to work in the first round of voting in April, when Ossoff garnered 48 percent of the vote — almost enough to avoid a runoff. Republican Karen Handel, fighting through a field of 18, didn't even reach 20 percent in that race.

Then something remarkable happened in the runoff: Although only two candidates were on the ballot, Ossoff's vote share didn't grow. Voters flocked to Handel, a more established political presence, despite $23 million in campaign funds raised by Ossoff and an additional $8 million poured in by outside groups on his behalf.

The vote marked a massive disconnect from the national narrative. It was yet another reminder of the difference between the storylines that dominate Washington and those that play out on the ground in swaths of the country.

The result suggests that Democrats are missing the messaging mark. But the real frustration in the party stems from the fact that it's not clear in which direction they should be aiming.

This year's special elections have been special cases and have offered conflicting data. Left-of-center candidates came closer than expected in House races in Montana and Kansas. On Tuesday the Democrat running in South Carolina with almost no national attention or money came almost as close to winning as Ossoff.

Nancy Pelosi emerged as a more effective messaging foil for Republicans than Donald Trump was for Democrats. The Republican establishment effectively rallied behind its candidates despite Trump's polarizing presidency and the continued concerns over his leadership from within that establishment.

Democrats don't have a cohesive message or a road map for arriving at one. They surely haven't proved that the House will be in play in 2018 — though it may well be — and Trump and his GOP brethren now feel emboldened for their governing agenda in 2017.

"Race better be a wake up call for Democrats -- business as usual isn't working. Time to stop rehashing 2016 and talk about the future," Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., tweeted Tuesday night, in a widely noted piece of commentary. "We need a genuinely new message, a serious jobs plan that reaches all Americans, and a bigger tent not a smaller one."

Conceding defeat Tuesday night, Ossoff nodded to the national attention his race garnered, which he said was "sometimes to my chagrin." He tried to stay upbeat, casting a race that shouldn't have been close for a Democrat in the first place as a "beacon of hope" for those who are upset with the current political power structure.

"We showed the world that in places where no one thought it was even possible to fight, we could fight," he said.

But the Democrats' problem, of course, isn't simply fighting; it's winning. For now, with the fights inside the party far from settled, they haven't shown that critical capacity to win.

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