Why Democrats Lose: the Case of Jon Ossoff

Left-leaning political strategists should be rejoicing over Jon Ossoff’s performance in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District Tuesday. In a hotly-contested special election, Ossoff delivered a victory for a platform featuring Vermont Jewish Socialism and against neoliberalism.

Georgia’s sixth district was, in the minds of the nitwits in control of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the ideal place to begin to win back the House. Its voters were largely affluent white professionals. It had plenty of Utero-Americans in the workforce (who lean “D”). The “R”s were economically conservative, but socially moderate; 27% of the voters were minorities and there were rich lodes of independent voters.

The notion that suburbs are becoming demographically comparable to cities– and transmogrify from Republican base to Democrats swing district when they do– is one of the great mantras of DLC-Third Way-Neoliberal-Clintonista strategists (or, as I am wont to call them, “Rahm-Obama-Lama-Ding-Dongs”). It is why, while the district voted for George W. Bush (first 68% and 70%), John McCain got only 62% and Mitt Romney got 61%.

In 2016. the district chose Darnold Turnip over Hilarious Clinton in 2016 by only one point: 48%-47%.

The race became even better when former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel got one of the spots in the runoff. Unlike the populist Turnip, Handel was precisely the type of extremist that DCCC savants knew would turn professionals and indepdendents off. Handel had been designated a “Mama Grizzly” by Sarah Palin; Palin had campaigned for Handel during her failed run for Governor.

Handel was also the genius who decided to de-fund Planned Parenthood during her brief reign as political director of the Susan G. Wingnut “Race To The Right” foundation.

Since Handel would turn voters off, DNC types concluded, the district would be ready to turn to a Democrat– as long as he eschewed partisan rhetoric and ran on the economic issues that appealed to upscale voters.

That campaign plan is the advice Rahm-Obama-Lama-Ding-Dongs have been giving to candidates since Emanuel ran the DCCC from 2005-07. Last July, at a Washington Post campaign forum, Chuck Shumer explained how it would help Democrats win the presidency:

“For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”

It’s a shame that Schumer’s boast didn’t use “Michigan” instead of “Illinois.” If so, it would be the single stupidest statement about politics ever uttered. It’s not much of a trick for a Republican to flip Ohio (W won my home state twice), but the last Democrat to lose Pennsylvania was Tank Commander Mike Dukakis in 1988. Michigan went Republican that year– the last time it had done so before 2016. It took Jimmy Carter’s VP (running with a Hillary prototype on the “Lets Raise Taxes” platform ) to lose Wisconsin.

“Tack hard right and court republicans” is the advice Emanuel is still giving. On June 20– the day of the election– Emanuel and Bruce Reed took what they expected to be a victory lap in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly. “How the Democrats Can Take Back Congress” laid out their advice in detail.

Ossoff followed it to the letter– and it didn’t work on any count.

As it happens, Georgia’s sixth district is an ideal testing ground for effectiveness of the ROLDD congressional strategy. It’s comprised of parts of three counties– each very different than the other two– with different strategic goals.

Fulton County. The county that encompasses Atlanta and its northern suburbs has as many voters as the other two counties combined. According to the partisan voter index calculated by the Cook Political Report, it is Republican, but not unduly so (somewhere between R+3 and R+5).

If he hoped to win, Ossoff needed to keep the margin below that range– ideally making it as close as possible.

Handel won the county 53-47, exactly the margin that “R+3” predicts. At best, Ossoff avoided the worst-case. He made no inroads with Republican voters. Fulton delivered 117,719 votes– a high turnout for a special election.

Cobb County. As you might expect from a county named after a pre-Civil War Republican, voters are solidly Republican– an “R+10” PVI. To win the race, Ossoff needed two things. Ideally, he would keep Handel’s winning margin below 60% (he needed 57% to win). Or, if Handel’s extreme views turned off Republicans– enough to produce a low turnout (total votes less than half of Fulton’s turnout)– he had a chance to win with a big turnout on his turf.

Neither happened. Based on the number of voters in Fulton, Ossoff needed turnout in Cobb to be at or below 58,850. It was 65,775– well above average– and Handel got 61% of the votes.

DeKalb County. This was Ossoff’s base– a majority-black, solidly-Democratic bloc of votes. To win, Ossoff needed DeKalb to offset Cobb: both high turnout (over 50% of Fulton’s count) and a winning percentage over 60%.

Ossoff missed both targets. DeKalb produced only 57,917 voters (less than half of Fulton; nearly 8,000 below Cobb) and he won by 58%-42.

End Result: The election turned out to be the exact opposite of the predictions:

* Ossoff didn’t peel away ‘swing’ voters in Fulton County– Handel finished in the target range.

* Handel didn’t turn off voters in Cobb– she clearly energized them.

* DeKalb voters– who needed to be as enthusiastic about Ossoff as Cobb voters were about their candidate– stayed away.

The margin for Handel (53%-47%) was worse than the presidential. Not only did Ossoff get the same percentage as Hilarious (who has been making enemies since 1992), the 5% turnout for third-party candidates in November all went to Handel.

Ossoff underperformed Clinton despite getting an estimated $30 million spent for him– outspending Handel by roughly $10 million.

Holy Refudiation, Batman!!! Looks like Rahm’s master plan humped the bunny.

The result isn’t surprising. I’ve volunteered on Democratic campaigns since 1972 and worked on them for most of the last 30. I have no idea how anyone with a brain could have imagined that human beings would want to vote for Ossoff. For almost all of the race I avoided watching Ossoff speak. I first heard stories about the race from the neoliberal pundits and pros who are consistently wrong. After I looked at Ossioff’s web site, I decided that my blood pressure couldn’t stand watching the debates or his commercials.

But Monday evening, Lawrence O’Donnell’s show teased an interview with Ossoff in the last segment, I decided to tune in. And, dear lord, what a smarmy little weasel Ossoff was.

The segment began at 10:54 PM the night before election day– too late to have any impact. (In the Montana special election, Republican Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter the day before his special election– three hours earlier in the day. It didnt get enough traction to t move the sticks).

O’Donnell was friendly, and nobody watching was going to vote for Handel. But Ossoff wasn’t going to throw Democrats any bones (much less red meat). He said he was opposed to any type of tax increase. He wanted the federal government to take action to unlock the economic potential of the Atlanta area (that’s code for “cut regulations”). He blamed the mess that is US healthcare solely on “partisan gridlock” caused by “career politicians” and called on both parties to work together.

As I looked in Ossoff’s cold, dead eyes as he spouted long streams of rhetoric, I thought

“Friend, you’re running against a woman who looks like a brunette Miss Piggy and talks like Sarah Palin– right down to the word salad answers. I guess I’d have to vote for you if I lived in the district, But I dislike what you’re saying, I don’t think you’re saying what you really believe, and I wouldn’t choose you as my Congressman if I had a choice.”

And that seems to be how voters reacted, too. In the primary, Ossoff got 48.1%; Handel got 19.8%. Ossoff only needed to pick up 2% to win– but they all went to Handel. In fact, Ossiff lost votes from the primary.

This is only one race– but if we put it into context, it looks ever worse. There was another special election on Tuesday. In South Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District– a contest to replace congressman-turned OMB director Prick Mulvaney (I think I have his first name right)– Republican Ralph Norman defeated Democrat Archie Parnell by 51.1 to 47.9%.

Take a wild guess at the amount that the DCCC and its crack stragedists spent helping Parnell.

Here’s the bottom line on the four special elections:

SC-05: That district had a Cook PVI of R+9; Turnip beat Hilarious 57-39 last November. The DCCC ignored the race, leaving the Democratic candidate to do the best he could on his own…

… And the Republican got 51.1% of the vote.

Montana: Their only Congressional District had a PVI of R+11; Trump won the state 56-35. The DCCC stayed out of that race. Candidate Rob Quist (who, among other things, was delinquent on his taxes) ran on a platform comparable to Bernie Sanders…

…And the Republican got 50.2% of the vote.

KS-04: Kansas’s 4th Congressional District had the highest PVI of the four (R+15); Trump won it 60-33. The DCCC steered well clear. Not only did candidate James Thompson run a partisan campaign– he echoed Bernie Sanders chapter and verse.

It was the worst-case scenario– the precise thing the DCCC tells candidates never to do.

… And Republican Ron Estes got 52.5% of the vote– the highest percentage.

Until Tuesday.

GA-06 had the lowest PVI of the four (R+8). Trump barely won the district (48-47). The DCCC and their allies went into the race whole-hog; the candidate did everything they asked. But the Republican candidate got the highest percentage in any of the special elections: 52.6%. More even than the one running against the Berniecrat in the district with the corporate headquarters of Koch Industries.

Earth to Democrats: How much clearer can this possibly be? How many times does this have to happen before you figure things out? The races you write off as unwinnable end up closer than the ones where you do everything you can.

Samuel L. Jackson’s advice to John Travolta in the final scene of Pulp Fiction springs to mind. You’re a bunch of (to use Rahm’s term for progressives) “fucking retards” who do not have a clue about how to win elections. You’ve been working off the same blueprint since Rahm lost the Congress in 1994 and you keep failing.

The country can’t afford to hand Mitch McConnell 63 Senate seats in 2018 and give Paul Ryan’s successor (he’s likely to lose his seat) 275. And they will if they listen to the DCCC again.

I’ve known Rahm Emanuel for nearly 40 years (we went to Sarah Lawrence together). Rahm knows even less about voter targeting than he does about slicing meat end of point. If Democrats keep looking for candidates like Jon Ossoff, they’re going to elect a passel of Karen Handels.

Geoff Beckman is a strategy, technology, management and technical consultant living in the Cleveland Ohio area. He retired from Democratic political consulting in 2006.