Democracy Alliance Blog / June 26, 2017

A DA Forum: How to Read the Special Elections, and What Next

There has been a range of reactions from progressives to the loss in the hard-fought special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional race—and to the outcomes in California, Montana, Kansas, and South Carolina as well. Because this has been a source of debate—and some tension and recrimination—in the progressive community, we thought it would be good to provide the perspectives of a few commentators: DA Partners Shekar Narasimhan, Steve Phillips, and Scott SatterwhiteSarah Audelo of the Alliance for Youth Action, and Deirdre Schifeling of Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Their short essays are below, and we also link to several articles that offer further analysis and commentary about the special elections.

My own view is that there is no denying that the results in Georgia are disappointing, because we had a shot to win—and indeed we came closer here and in every other special election than anyone had reason to think possible just a few months ago. It would have been a great tonic to win, because we need good news given all we have been facing lately, and it would have had an impact on the Congressional fights over health care and other issues. But there’s a reason why Trump pulled Price, Zinke, Pompeo, and Mulvaney out of Congress for the Cabinet—they were each in what were thought to be solidly safe seats, and none of them turned out to be as safe as thought because of the energy progressives and others repulsed by Trump poured into the races. The districts we need to win—and have strong prospects in—to take back the House next year are not the historically strong Republican districts we have been contesting in these special elections. Every bit of data shows they are in our grasp if we mobilize and turn out our voters. The results of the special elections did nothing to change that.

All that said, progressives put a lot into Georgia, and the sense of frustration from some in the progressive community is palpable, particularly because we see daily the impact of this administration’s policies on real people. Progressive leaders should listen to that frustration and channel it back into the fights ahead, and also should take a clear-eyed look at the race in the days ahead for what it may teach us about what we need to do better.

And as we assess the performance in these special elections and think about the opportunities before us in Congress, let’s remember the bigger picture, and double down on the DA’s priority to take back power in the states where the Right has made enormous gains in recent years. We can dismantle their vice grip on 30 states and take back Congress by winning control of more states, redrawing the outrageously gerrymandered state and Congressional district lines, and mobilizing a broad-based coalition of voters who reject the Trump-GOP agenda and embrace our vision of a fair, inclusive economy, democracy, healthy planet, and society where every American is treated with respect and given an opportunity to succeed.

Gara LaMarche
President, Democracy Alliance


Steve Phillips, Founder of Democracy in Color and PowerPac+

Excerpted from the Democracy in Color blog

Maybe now Democrats can start pursuing a strategy likely to actually win and finally bury the fanciful notion that Republican voters will abandon the monster in the White House. If tonight’s GA-06 special election proves anything, it’s that no amount of paid advertising and no amount of evidence of obstruction of justice (if not outright treason) will pry loose Republican voters. Fortunately, buried beneath the headlines is the empirical evidence that Democrats can take back the House in 2018 if they focus all their resources on mobilizing Democratic voters instead of trying to woo Republicans.

Democrats spent nearly $30 million in the GA-06 race, making it the most expensive House of Representatives contest in U.S. History. And they still lost. As the election approached, Jon Ossoff’s campaign increasingly moved to the middle in a vain attempt to attract Republican support in the hopes moderate Republicans would be appalled by Trump’s behavior. This was the same approach tried by the Clinton campaign which focused on his temperament instead of his racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Both times, the approach failed.

What’s that saying? When people show you who they are, believe them. For whatever reason — racial solidarity, cultural anxiety, willing suspension of disbelief, or something else — so-called moderate Republicans are sticking with their man in the White House.

Fortunately, we don’t need to win the votes of Republicans, and the results from Georgia — and the much-less heralded special election in South Carolina tonight — actually affirm the promising prospects for Democrats to take back the House in 2018. In a nutshell, midterm elections always see significant drop-off in voter turnout, and the party that minimizes that drop-off usually wins control of the chamber (I wrote about this here in a recent column in The Nation).

For all the hoopla about the GA-06 race (hoopla which, by the way, contributed to the Ossoff defeat by highlighting the significance of the race and driving up Republican turnout), the more telling numbers can be found in South Carolina. In that election, also tonight, Republican Ralph Norman won by a mere 2,836 votes in a seat the Republicans won by 56,000 votes last November. More important, the winner in South Carolina got just 44,000 votes, but there are 132,000 eligible Black voters in that district. The Democrats could have picked up that seat without getting a single white vote, had they invested in, communicated with, organized, and inspired the African American electorate. The Republican drop-off in the South Carolina race was 72%. Democrats, meanwhile, had higher turnout, with a drop-off of just 60%, making the margin razor thin.

Even in the GA-06 race — which really is an outlier with little predictive value given the extraordinary attention and resources showered on it — Republican turnout was down more than that of the Democrats. Republican turnout fell 37% while Democratic turnout dropped just 8%.

If the turnout patterns shown tonight replicate themselves — and they are likely to as every special election this year has seen much better Democratic performance than Republican, Democrats can take back the House next year by getting 84% of those who voted in 2016 to come back out in 2018. But to do so will require getting it through the thick skulls of Democratic consultants that we are not going to change the minds of Republican voters. The Democratic ecosystem will spend more than $750 million between now and November 2018, and all of that money should go to organizing, inspiring, and mobilizing core Democratic voters. That is the way to win. If tonight’s results proved nothing else, it’s that every dollar spent wooing Republicans is money flushed down the drain.


Planned Parenthood Action Fund Executive Director Deirdre Schifeling

Georgia 06 was never supposed to have been a competitive race—it was a special election, in an off-year, in solidly Republican district. Yet the race saw record-breaking turnout and unprecedented enthusiasm, resulting in the closest election results that district has seen in decades. At the end of the day, it’s clear that progressive issues, especially women’s health, are motivating voters in unexpected numbers and attracting new people to get involved in politics. If these are the results we see in a long shot election, imagine what we can do in a race that starts out competitive.

From the start of his campaign, Jon Ossoff was a strong supporter of women’s reproductive health care and Planned Parenthood, and it’s no wonder: reproductive health care is under attack like never before under the Trump administration, and there’s a looming Planned Parenthood “defunding” threat in Congress. Ossoff made the issue a central focus of his campaign, helping to inspire unprecedented waves of volunteer support and enthusiasm. Polling showed that Karen Handel’s attacks on Planned Parenthood raised serious doubts with 56 percent of likely voters, and messages about Handel’s attacks on Planned Parenthood’s health services outperformed messages tying Handel to Trump.

Through a six-figure investment in organizing and turnout, knocking over 90,000 doors and connecting with 80,000 voters via digital and mail, Planned Parenthood Action Fund kept this race close throughout and represented the second-largest independent investment for Ossoff.

While Ossoff lost by 3.8 points (compared to a 23 point loss for the Democratic candidate in the 2016 general election), in a special election in the middle of June, he came 25 votes shy of securing more votes than any Democratic nominee for Congress in this district in 17 years. As the New York Times put it, turnout “smashed” mid-term election levels, producing “probably the strongest Democratic turnout in an off-year election in at least a decade”—including a “surprising” number of normally irregular voters. More ballots were cast than in any previous non-presidential-year congressional race in GA-06 or any other special House race in the nation. This unprecedented level of engagement demonstrates why investing in special elections is so vital.

Despite progressive success in turning out the base and persuading independents, GA-06’s conservative electorate made it easier for conservative groups to activate their base once they detected a threat. However, in the end, conservative outside groups outspent progressive outside groups by $11 million to hold a seat they had won by 23 points just seven months prior.

Districts like GA-06 may require longer-term organizing in order to optimize our ability to motivate progressive voters. Special Election contact is fundamentally transactional, but highly educated, suburban districts with highly diverse communities represent good long-term targets to shift more progressive over time.


DA Board Member and AAPI Victory Fund Founder Shekar Narasimhan

Let’s start with the bad news. We lost, and yes, we went 1/5. I have asked myself two questions: first, is whether any of the four that were deep red were really winnable in the first place? Not really. The second is whether we risk dissipating the energy and enthusiasm that is out there because we still haven’t figured out the economic message? I think the answer to that is yes.

Why GA-6 was not winnable, but worth it.

The right has spent millions over two decades building networks in deep red states. These networks turn out their voters as they did in November and again now in June. We seem surprised by this. When the returns from Cobb County started to come in, it was obvious we would lose, because these voters do not respond to polls. And, there was no significant move by more moderate Republican voters to abandon Trump. Too early perhaps or just wishful thinking?

The good news was that women and people of color were engaged in unprecedented numbers. In fact, AAPIs showed the largest percentage of increase, at least in the early voting. Engagement matters, which then leads back to my worry about dissipating our energy without a common economic message that unites progressives. Perhaps, we should simply emphasize the values of hard work, family, education and tolerance to create a fairer and more equitable society. Get this right and the AAPI community represents the best political ROI for progressives —a little love can go a long way!


Georgia Alliance Donor Scott Satterwhite

Had you told me a year ago that I would be disappointed to see the Democrat lose in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District—the proving grounds for such Republicans as Newt Gingrich, Johnny Isakson and Tom Price—I might have thought you mad. Yet Tuesday night was a disappointment, for me and for thousands of Democrats in Georgia and around the country who came to believe a victory was within reach. Despite the outcome of the race, I see many positive signs in Tuesday’s election returns.

To cover known ground, GA 6 has not been a place for progressives to run with any hope of success. The district was drawn to deliver Republicans to US Congress, and it has worked well. Trump may have only carried GA 6 by a slim margin, but Tom Price won handily in 2016 by 23%. While Jon Ossoff overperformed every Democrat who has run for this seat in the last two decades by 9% or more, Karen Handel ultimately had a larger pool of Republican voters to target.

There is still much data to be analyzed and much debriefing to be done, as well as thinking about messaging and the effect that all the national attention may have had on voters. The election left behind a treasure trove of data on voters, their concerns, and their responses to messages. It left behind many now-experienced staffers and a long list of newly-engaged volunteers. We experimented with new technologies for voter engagement and hatched new partnerships with national players on the ground. We had already identified 10 state legislative seats within GA 6 that based on the last election looked winnable in 2018. We now know so much more about those voters. We’re in the business of building a long-term progressive movement and this election provided us much in this effort.

Gaining progressive power in Georgia does not turn on the shock and awe of winning an improbable, high-profile, nationally important election. Led by Meg Robinson and now aided by Cheryl Bruce, the Georgia Alliance for Progress has in the past two plus years built and expanded a solid progressive platform with great capacity for civic engagement, messaging, policy development, data analysis, and leadership development. These are long-term assets that solid candidates can take advantage of to launch campaigns that will shift the terms of political debate statewide. Electoral and policy wins will follow in that wake. Our plans for the upcoming cycle are ambitious, but achievable. This recent election bolsters our confidence and our resolve. The tide will turn here.


Sarah Audelo, Executive Director of the Alliance for Youth Action

If there’s anything that we can learn about the recent special elections, it should be that the left has a ton of work to do to build long-term and sustained power in communities that have previously been written off as conservative (and so-called progressive ones too, to be honest).

The net gains in South Carolina, Georgia, and Montana are impressive, but we should be able to point to some kind of progressive infrastructure that remains in these places given the resources that were invested. When resources are only thrown into candidate-focused work, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past – outside money and people swooping in at the last minute.

Year-round, ongoing engagement in our communities not only works better to shift the civic habits of young Americans; this approach also drives innovative policy and develops new generations of leaders who will advance the values of our movements.

In Montana, our affiliate Forward Montana (FMT) has been organizing young people across the state for over 10 years. For the recent special election, early resources to the state were critical to allow FMT to build a plan focused on early voting and awareness. Unfortunately, the election was held after colleges let out for the summer and many young people were unable to cast a ballot.

In 2018, Forward Montana and the rest of the Alliance network will continue to mobilize young voters in the short-term, build habits among voters, and undertake strong youth vote electoral programs. These strategies across the Alliance network have been shown to transform the electorate, at times by rates of 20 points higher than young registrants as a whole. What happens when we replicate this level of sustained engagement from coast-to-coast?