Jon Ossoff’s loss in the special election held on Tuesday in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, is a stinging defeat for Democrats.
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They went all out, invested prestige, time and money, fielded an attractive candidate and were certain that widespread disapproval of President Donald Trump would deliver the goods, but they were defeated nonetheless. Their prospects of retaking the House of Representatives in the 2018 elections seemed to change overnight from bright to barely dim.
The conditions appeared to be optimal. Ossoff, a 30-year-old Jewish filmmaker and political operative, seemed savvy and likable, while his rival Karen Handel, Georgia’s secretary of state, looked gray and reactionary. The party’s top brass enlisted in the campaign, backed by hundreds of enthused volunteers. The Democrats raised almost $24 million and spent half on political ads, in the most expensive House race in history.
Given that Ossoff came tantalizingly close in the first round of voting to crossing the 50 percent threshold that would have won the race for him, as well as the widespread dissatisfaction with both Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress, the Democrats were sure they had a good chance of winning, even in a district that has voted Republican for over a generation.
But the higher they climbed before Tuesday’s vote, buoyed by polls that predicted victory up until the last few days, the harder they will fall now that the results are in. The Democrats purposely played up the Georgia vote as a sort of referendum on Trump that would prove how low he’s sunk in public opinion; they will now have to lie in the bed they made for themselves.
Even though Handel tried to conceal Trump as much as possible during the campaign, the White House celebrated her victory as a vote of confidence in Trump and his policies. Even if they succeed in convincing themselves that Ossoff’s loss by a single-digit margin is good news, the Democrats will have to suffer through days on end of Trump’s boasting and gloating.
Even before all the votes were counted, analysts and commentators were dissecting the Democratic failure. Despite everything, the Republican base remained loyal to the president, they said. The Democrats can’t rely solely on resentment of Trump to carry the day, they added. After the Barack Obama era and Hillary Clinton’s shocking defeat in the election, the Democrats lack leadership, direction and a compelling political message. Nancy Pelosi, who called most of the shots in the Georgia election, is a wily politician, but, at 77, is past her prime.
But here’s another explanation for the Democrats’ failure to achieve victory: They wanted it too badly. Their yearning was too palpable. Their efforts were too visible. They didn’t even try to hide how much they would rejoice when it happened. These signs of excess sparked Republican resentment of their despised liberal rivals' unbridled eagerness to crucify Trump.
Any observer of Israeli politics will tell you that nothing aggravates right-wingers more than the thought of satisfied left-wingers celebrating at their expense. Benjamin Netanyahu has often been the beneficiary of such support, “not out of love of Mordechai but out of hatred of Haman,” as the saying inspired by the Book of Esther spells out. Even the most reluctant of Republicans, including those who think Trump is a disaster or who were repelled by Handel’s extreme opposition to abortions and gay marriage, decided at the last minute to hold their noses and vote for her nonetheless.
A defeat would have demoralized the GOP and pushed their lawmakers to panic. Many of them would have distanced themselves from the president or even abandoned him altogether. Handel’s victory ensures their continued backing for the president and his policies, for the time being at least, on the assumption that he isn’t further implicated in the Russian collusion probes and that he succeeds in putting his White House in order.
Democrats, on the other hand, are headed for crisis, if not a fall. Their frustration at their loss will wreak havoc in the party and stir internal debate. It could strengthen the hands of those who are calling for a more emphatic ideological and radical line and wish to anoint senators such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren as leaders.
In normal days one could safely predict that such radicalization would weaken the party’s chances of winning the congressional election in 2018 or the presidential race in 2020, but these times are anything but normal. Voters throughout the Western world are restless and unpredictable. If someone like Trump can be elected president, anything can happen, including violent swings from hard right to deep left and vice versa.