By all rights Georgia Democratic congressional candidate, Jon Ossoff, shouldn’t even be in the Georgia special election congressional race. He should be in Congress. The Georgia congressional special election was a race that could and should have been won by him the first go around. The district seemed ripe for the Democrats to finally beat a Republican somewhere.
There was a small army of GOP candidates running helter-skelter against each other in the GOP primary. There were lots of young, immigrant, Hispanic and African-American voters that have fast changed the voter demographic of the district. Ossoff typified the change. He’s young, politically savvy, and raised more money than practically any other newly minted Democratic candidate running for a congressional seat ever did.
Democratic committee organizing groups put boots on the ground in the district to rev up voter interest and excitement for Ossoff. He came close to an outright primary win. But that was the problem, he didn’t win and now the test in elections like the Georgia special election is not just whether he can win, but whether Democrats can figure out how to beat Trump in races that they must win. The very first step toward doing that was to start winning some congressional seats in the run-up to the 2018 mid-term elections. They lost two special elections, in Kansas and Montana, that were arguably winnable. They lost in part because the Democratic national and local committees didn’t put money and troops into a massive on the ground voter education, registration, and voter turn-out effort. They lost in greater part because they ran scared of the GOP in both states. They assumed that they couldn’t beat a GOP candidate in a deep red state.
Now there’s Georgia. Some lessons have been learned since the losses in Kansas and Montana and Ossoff’s failure to win the seat outright in the primary. There are more Democratic organizers in the district. The focus is on door-to-door, face-to-face, voter outreach, targeting African-American voters in the district, and working the phones and voter registration rolls to get more people to the polls.
However, there are three crucial lessons for the Democrats to learn to beat Trump and the GOP. The first is that the Democrats make a horrendous mistake in relying on a GOP opponent to shoot themselves in the foot. This thinking didn’t work so well with Trump, and it hasn’t worked anywhere else where Democrats try to link a GOP candidate to Trump, or go negative on a GOP opponent. The GOP won’t beat itself. Democratic contenders must do that through hard, patient, organizing telling voters why they should vote for a Democrat, and not simply vote against a Republican.
The second lesson is that putting time, energy, and resources into an over the top reach for supposed on the fence white, mostly male, less educated rural and blue-collar workers won’t work. For now, they are locked down for Trump and the GOP. The Democrats must reconnect with and reenergize their traditional base, African-Americans, Hispanics, and youth. Their voting numbers plunged in 2016 from 2008 and 2012. The reason wasn’t just that Obama wasn’t on the ticket in 2016. The brutal reality was that the Democrats did what many black voters have screamed at them about for years, and that is take them for granted. The assumption was that the terror of a Trump White House win was enough for black voters to storm the polls. It didn’t happen. A party and a candidate must get off their haunches, put lots of face time into talking to voters about why they are important, and what exactly the candidate will do for them for their vote. Black voters want to know for instance about health care, but they also want to know about issues such as police abuse, and jobs, and what a Democrat will do about them.
The other lesson is that spending millions on TV ads, and getting big name celebrities or party big shot endorsements means little. In more cases than not, it’s a turn-off. People get sick of being preached to in non-stop sound bite TV ads that endlessly go negative about the rival candidate. There’s much evidence that celebrities and a national party household name official barging into a local race and commanding voters to vote for a Democrat has almost no effect.
The Democratic National Committee following the 2016 presidential election was, by any standard, a wreck and a ruin. It got pounded for misstep after misstep that included: poor and disconnected leadership, leaked emails, gross favoritism, petty infighting, blatant manipulation of the primaries and gross cluelessness about the Trump threat. There were clearly hard lessons to be learned from this. Those lessons weren’t learned in the Kansas and Montana special elections. Georgia will tell just what the Democrats have learned since then. This could be a make or break election for the Democrats. If it’s break, the Democrats are in even bigger trouble.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. His forthcoming book, The Trump Challenge to Black America (Middle Passage Press) will be released in August. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.