Democrats' disputes simmer after special election losses

PHOTO: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), flanked by House Democrats, speaks about the Affordable Care Act on Capitol Hill, Jan. 12, 2017, in Washington. Leader Pelosi discussed issues surrounding the repeal of the ACA. PlayAaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images
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Democrats were left picking up the pieces after spending millions of dollars from the party’s war chest to back a young candidate in a traditionally red district outside Atlanta and pushing hard for their base of supporters from around the country to donate to him too.

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The loss in the high-profile, costly race was only exacerbated by a second defeat last night in a race that flew mostly under the radar: Democrats also lost a special election in South Carolina.

Despite national fervor and grassroots activism that have sprung up on the left since President Trump took office, Republicans have swept all four special election races in 2017.

"I don’t like moral victories, I like victories," Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who challenged House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the House Democratic leadership elections last fall, told reporters this morning.

"There's a level of depression," he said of the mood among Democrats, adding that the national brand of the party is "toxic."

On Capitol Hill, top party officials told their colleagues to stay motivated after a strong showing in a conservative district that once sent former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to Congress and re-elected former Rep. Tom Price by double digits in November.

In an internal memo distributed to Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee staff obtained by ABC News, Chairman Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-New Mexico, argued that many Republicans won their districts by slimmer margins than in the Georgia-sixth last fall. With all the grassroots energy the party, he wrote, the party still had a chance to take back the House of Representatives next year.

"I think the hype before the election that we had to win this was wrong," said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-New York. "If the [marginal swing from November] holds true in a year, we sweep the House."

But for other Democrats critical of their party's leaders, Tuesday's losses resurfaced long-simmering frustrations with Pelosi’s leadership and the party’s message heading into the midterms.

Asked if Democrats can win in 2018 while GOP groups run attack ads featuring Nancy Pelosi, Ryan said "it's going to make things a heck of a lot harder."

Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-New York, who supported Ryan's leadership bid, tweeted Wednesday that Ossoff had to spend time and money "defending against attacks on our party leadership" despite Trump's unpopularity.

"Attacks aren't fair or justified, but GOP keeps using this playbook because they see that it works. That's a fact we can't keep ignoring," she wrote.

Joe Cunningham, a Democrat running for Congress in a bid to unseat Rep. Mark Sanford, R-South Carolina, tweeted a promise not to vote for Nancy Pelosi for leadership if he wins his race -- just hours after announcing his bid.

"Time to move forward and win again," he wrote.

In a previously scheduled closed-door conference meeting this morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Lujan kicked off the session by mentioning the race last night, the need for the party to develop an economic message.

The comments, seven months after the 2016 election, left some scratching their heads.

“It's June 21st,” one member in the meeting told reporters in disbelief.

Progressive Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, a freshman who has expressed frustration with Pelosi and party’s platforms in the past, argued last night that the party has to rally behind a “concrete” and “bold” economic agenda.

“I think we do need a bolder economic platform that speaks to wage stagnation and the need for new jobs ... and has new ideas that can capture people's attention and imagination,” he told ABC News. He listed the possibility of a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that create jobs or a dramatic earned income tax credit expansion.

“As you know, we need 24 seats to retake the majority. Our DCCC polling team and outside pollsters went into dozens of districts in the last few months to learn: Is the momentum real? Is it building to the point that we can win 24 seats and take back the House? The answer is yes,” Lujan wrote. “In more than 24 districts and counting, generic Democrats are leading in the polls or have already made significant shifts from the last polls available in 2016.”

The memo talks about specific districts in Florida, New Jersey and Arizona where the DCCC says it has “tested the named head-to-head between Republican incumbents and specific Democrats, and the results are staggering. Many incumbents -- who won with double digits last cycle -- would be in the race of their careers.”

In a letter to House Democrats today, Pelosi praised the party's slate of candidates for giving Republicans "a run for their money" in all the special elections in "deep red congressional districts"

"The House was in play before the Georgia race. The House remains in play now," she wrote.

Pelosi said Democrats continue to fine-tune their economic message to voters, an effort led by Reps. Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois, David Ciciline, D-Rhode Island, and Hakeem Jeffires, D-New York.

Pelosi and Lujan have been working on a economic messaging plan for months, updating members on the process since the election.