Democrats coming away empty in four special congressional elections, outside of keeping the downtown Los Angeles district that they would never lose (President Trump received only 11 percent of the vote there, for example), led to internal questions about House minority leader and former speaker Nancy Pelosi’s party stewardship, yet the ire is actually misplaced.
After losing June’s Georgia special election in which an all-time combined spending record was set for any congressional race, possibly by a multiple of 10, a group of about a dozen House Democrats, led by Reps. Kathleen Rice of New York and Tim Ryan of Ohio, convened and began calling Pelosi’s leadership into question.
But the real blame for the special election targeting and strategy debacle should be pinned upon Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico.
The Pelosi objectors are pointing to the fact that Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff raised likely more than $33 million spent in the race, which is more money than any U.S. House candidate has ever had — a major candidate in a congressional race rarely exceeds $5 million in spending — yet still lost 52 percent to 48 percent to Republican former Secretary of State Karen Handel. Because Democrats raised the stakes so high on the Georgia race, the result became a national embarrassment for the party and leadership.
But, it wasn’t Pelosi who made the political targeting decisions. It was Perez and Lujan who decided to “put their eggs in one basket” when they virtually eschewed the Kansas, Montana and South Carolina special elections to instead focus virtually all their money and emphasis on the Georgia race.
But, why was Georgia chosen? After all, just 200 miles away on the same special election night, South Carolina Democrat Archie Parnell, who received only perfunctory party support, actually performed better than Ossoff. While the Georgia final result was four-point deficit, Parnell finished just three points behind Republican victor Ralph Norman in a race the Democratic political leadership virtually conceded from the outset.
The questions Reps. Rice and Ryan and the others should be asking of Perez and Lujan and not Pelosi is why the most Republican of the four special election districts became the focal target and not the least?
Georgia’s 6th District is in the northern Atlanta suburbs and has been a Republican seat since former Speaker Newt Gingrich was first elected there in 1978, though in different configuration. Following Gingrich as the area representative was now-U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, and then Tom Price, whom President Trump appointed as Health and Human Services secretary, thus creating the special election vacancy. During his seven elections, Price averaged a victory mark of right around 76 percent.
In South Carolina, the 5th District lies anchored in the Charlotte suburbs, just south of the North Carolina border. It then stretches close to Columbia in the central part of the state. Until as late as 2010 veteran Democrat John Spratt represented the region, also in different configuration than today’s district boundaries but the anchor region remains consistent. The man who defeated him, now Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, never reached the 60 percent plateau in his four congressional elections when averaging 57.1 percent of the vote.
Arguably, the other two open districts, the Wichita-anchored Kansas’ 4th District and the Montana at-large seat, also have historically better Democratic performance records than the Atlanta suburban district that became the symbol of this special election season.
Montana, which has only one member in the House of Representatives, actually still possesses a competitive Democratic resume. Despite being reliably Republican in the presidential race, the state re-elected its Democratic governor and lieutenant governor on the same night President Trump carried it, Democrat Sen. Jon Tester is now running for a third term, and until this election all of the state’s constitutional officers, with the exception of the attorney general, were in Democratic hands. Yet, Kansas Democrat James Thompson and Montana’s Rob Quist lost by only six points apiece with only a slight fraction of the national Democratic support that Ossoff received.
There is no question that the Democrats blew their special election strategy, and Pelosi became the target because Republicans used her effectively to label Ossoff and Quist as being out of the political mainstream, but it isn’t her that upset party members should blame. The real culprits were Messrs. Perez and Lujan for poor decision-making at the very beginning of the special election process.