Why the Democrats Should Be Celebrating Their 4 Defeats

In Georgia, Jon Ossoff narrowly lost to Republican Karen Handel. That’s a big win: A Republican narrowly won in a strongly Republican district.
Jon Ossoff.jpg

Smart politicians know that spin is everything.”

Photo by Thomas Cizauskas / Flickr.

Democrats are taking a beating. Right? They lost every one of the four recent House special elections, in Georgia, South Carolina, Kansas, and Montana.

Party leaders had called the Georgia race a potential “game changer.” Win there and they’re on the road to taking over the House in 2018. Then they lost.

Is defeat the right frame for what has just happened?

And ever since Jon Ossoff’s loss to Republican Karen Handel, headlines have been dire and party recriminations rampant. On June 22, The New York Times front-page headline read “Democrats Fume as Georgia Loss Deepens Discord.” Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan’s comment that the party’s “brand is worse than Trump” has been widely cited in the media. Some Democratic Congress members are urging Nancy Pelosi to step down as minority leader. The media report deep divisions between the Bernie Sanders wing and the more centrist wing of the party.

But wait a minute. Is defeat the right frame for what has just happened?

The four recent contests were all in places where Republicans won by huge margins in the past but in this election won only by tiny margins. In the little-reported 5th District of South Carolina, Republican Mick Mulvaney had bested his Democratic opponent by 20 percentage points in 2016. In this year’s special election to replace Mulvaney, Republican Ralph Norman beat Democrat Archie Parnell by a mere 3 percentage points. In Kansas last year, Republican Mike Pompeo won by 31 percentage points, while in this year’s special election, Republican Ron Estes beat his Democratic opponent by only 7 percentage points. And in Georgia last year, Republican Tom Price won by 24 points, while Handel beat Ossoff by just under 4 percentage points this week.

The Democrats should be celebrating.

Democrats could see the recent special election losses as proof that they are on the road to victory.

To take control of the House in 2018, Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats. The Cook Political Report says that 72 House races are in swing districts. The most vulnerable seats belong to 23 Republicans and likely will be easier to win than those of the recent elections. So the Democrats could see the recent special election losses as proof that they are on the road to victory.

The public enjoys celebrating victories a whole lot more than mourning defeats. If the Democrats want to build a sense of momentum, they should be shouting victory.

The Democrats have another framing problem. It’s about the “deep discord” in the party. This implies the party is in shambles when actually we’re seeing lively debate about how to proceed and what is best for the country. That’s healthy.

Although the party can’t control how the media will report on its debates, Democrats should talk about their differences as being positive for the party and the country.

Democrats have huge structural disadvantages to overcome in most elections.

These days, Democrats have huge structural disadvantages to overcome in most elections. The 2010 redistricting resulted in gerrymandered districts that largely favor Republicans. Techniques in Republican-controlled states such as limiting the availability of polling places in heavily Democratic areas have added to the Democrats’ disadvantage, along with photo ID requirements that are harder for the poor to meet, and the disenfranchisement of ex-felons, who are disproportionately Black, Latino, and Native American.

Author Greg Palast in his Rolling Stone article “The GOP’s Stealth War Against Voters” documented that the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck program, used by 27 states, further disadvantages Blacks, Latinos, and Asians. Under this program, if a person with the same name and birthdate is registered in another state, that person can be prevented from voting.

With the deck stacked against them, Democrats need to turn out super majorities to win.

Smart politicians know that spin is everything. To turn out the majorities they need, Democrats should be talking about their dramatic gains in strongly Republican districts as victories and their contentious debates as signs of a vibrant party. Because they are.