Progressives have branded Jon Ossoff’s loss in Georgia’s special congressional election a “massive failure” for establishment Democrats that illustrates the need for leftwing candidates in the 2018 midterms.
Ossoff lost to Karen Handel in Georgia’s sixth congressional district on Tuesday night, in the most expensive House race in history. Although the district is traditionally Republican, Democrats had hoped to pull off a shock win inspired by a backlash against Donald Trump.
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But Ossoff’s defeat provoked immediate soul-searching. One Democratic congressman said on Wednesday the party leadership “owes us an explanation” for the loss.
Key figures in the progressive movement said Ossoff had lost because he ran a “Republican-lite” campaign – instead of embracing progressive issues.
“I’m not surprised. I knew he would lose,” said Winnie Wong, who co-founded People for Bernie, an independent activist group with more than a million supporters. “My feeling on the failure of this campaign goes back to the way that Democratic party prioritizes the needs of the consultant class rather than listening to what the voters want.”
Ossoff’s campaign raised $23.6m, with a substantial amount coming from out-of-state individual donors, representing an enthusiasm for his efforts nationally. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee contributed millions more in a race that Democrats pushed as a referendum on Trump’s presidency.
Wong said: “He didn’t have a core progressive message and that ultimately is why he lost. The Democratic party could spend $100m and he would still lose. Because he didn’t stand for anything.
“This is a massive failure of the DNC leadership. They enabled the same old pattern and the same old way of doing things. It was a re-entrenchment. It was like act two of 2016.”
Georgia’s sixth congressional district is traditionally Republican – the previous incumbent, Tom Price, won by 23 percentage points in 2016 – but in the presidential election, Trump carried the affluent Atlanta suburb by just over one percentage point, giving Democrats hope of an upset.
Ossoff’s campaign focused on relatively standard issues such as government waste and revitalizing Atlanta’s economy, while the candidate repeatedly criticized Handel’s political record and previous efforts to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.
Wong said this represented a missed opportunity. “If you look at his platform, he didn’t talk about single-payer healthcare, he didn’t speak about free college or student debt,” she said. “As a 30-year-old, imagine how much appeal he could have held with millennials.”
This is a massive failure of the DNC leadership. It was like act II of 2016Winnie Wong, People for Bernie
Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chairman, travelled to Atlanta to support Ossoff, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $5m – backing that was absent from the campaign of the progressive Democrat James Thompson in a Kansas special congressional election in April.
Congressman Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts, speaking at a press briefing with the Democrats’ national security taskforce in Washington on Wednesday morning, said Ossoff’s loss pointed to the need for a new generation of leaders in the party.
“One thing I learned in the marines is you’re responsible for everything you do or fail to do, your platoon does or fails to do,” said Moulton, 38, who served four tours in Iraq as a marine corps infantry officer. “I think that our leadership owes us an explanation for what happened, how the resources were spent, but also a plan for going forward and that’s got to be a part of the discussion … At the end of the day, we’ve got to win back seats in 2018.”
He added: “We as Democrats have to come to terms with the fact that we lost again. We are the party that stands up for working families, for the middle class, and yet many of them are not voting for us. It’s time for change and personally I think it’s time for a new generation of leadership in the party.”
Moulton’s comments echo what progressive leaders have been saying for some time. Moumita Ahmed, a former Bernie Sanders delegate and the founder of Millennials for Revolution, which encourages young progressives to run for office, said the Democratic establishment’s backing of Ossoff showed the party had not learned the lessons of 2016.
“Based on how you spend and how you allocate your resources is how you define the larger Democratic party and its strategy,” Ahmed said. “It’s like saying we care more about this district and winning than actually being a party that reforms itself and championing working-class people and working-class issues.
“Having Ossoff there wouldn’t have done anything. That district is affluent. We should be spending time on building leadership and committing to being the party that helps the poor. On that race, their strategy showed a lack of understanding of people who are suffering. We can’t put winning over helping people in other states and other races.”
It’s the same thing Hillary Clinton did in her campaign: ‘I’m not Trump’Corbin Trent, Brand New Congress
Aside from that, Ahmed agreed with Wong on the reason for Ossoff’s loss.
“He’s not in favour of single-payer healthcare, he’s not outspoken on campaign finance reform,” Ahmed said. “Why would I as a Republican vote for someone who isn’t a Republican, but still has the same values as a Republican?”
Corbin Trent, co-founder of Brand New Congress, which trains progressive candidates to run for office, said the Ossoff race was emblematic of “a decade” of Democratic failure.
“Have a distinction. Have a reason to vote for them,” Trent said. “Basically, he was saying, ‘I’m not Handel.’ That was his campaign. ‘I’m a Democrat. I’m not her.’ It’s the same thing Hillary Clinton did in her campaign: ‘I’m not Trump.’
“Well, what we’re seeing is that does not work. Just not being a Republican or not being something is not enough. People want to know what you’re for, what they do, how it’s gonna make your lives better if they vote for you.”
Georgia’s sixth district has an affluent, suburban electorate but Trent said a Sanders-style message on investing in green energy would have appealed to voters. “We’ve seen populism is basically becoming popular in American politics,” Trent said. “We can invest in this country, we can invest in infrastructure, we can invest in renewable energy.”
But given the money and attention on the race, Trent said Ossoff should have won. There is one ray of light, however, he said. “We’re going to see more candidates that are going to be running on a Sanders-style platform in the 2018 election,” Trent said. “Even though we’re not seeing results in the special elections yet, I think the tide is in our direction and we’re going to see a sweep election.”
Additional reporting by David Smith in Washington
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