We suspect that Tuesday night for progressive Georgians was akin to how more than half of America felt on Nov. 8, 2016.
Democratic Congressional nominee Jon Ossoff lost his bid for the state’s Sixth District seat to Republican Karen Handel in a hotly anticipated race, the most expensive Congressional contest in American history. The election wasn’t just about one candidate over the other: It was seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump, who very narrowly won the district in the fall. A win for Ossoff would have sent a message to Trump and Republicans who have refused to resist the party line on issues like health care, tax reform and the travel ban and could have energized a party that is desperate for big gains in the 2018 midterm elections.
But instead, the race went to Handel, offering Republicans a win and leaving many Democrats to ponder what went wrong. Some pundits surmise Ossoff wasn’t the best candidate for the challenge, while others say his approach of running primarily as an anti-Trump candidate wasn’t substantive enough, while others chalk the loss up to ingrained Republican ideals in the South. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above, and more.
What is clear is that the Democratic Party needs to regroup, and fast. The midterms will be here before we know it and the party needs gains not just for logistical reasons but also to energize a deeply dispirited nation.
The setup is similar to the marriage-equality movement the LGBT community saw several years ago. In a string of crushing defeats, voters went to the ballot box and approved initiatives to ban same-sex marriage or knocked down efforts to legalize marriage equality — more than 30 times in a row. Then, in 2012, the tide changed and, all at once, voters in three states (Maine, Maryland and Washington) approved marriage-equality ballot initiatives, while Minnesota voters defeated an effort to prohibit same-sex marriage.
It was a huge win at a time when just five other states permitted same-sex marriage. That the directives came directly from the states’ voters significantly turned the tide for LGBT equality.
The wins were largely credited to activists’ efforts to demonstrate the real-life impact of LGBT inequality to voters: to introduce the families, the children, the lives that were being disrupted by the states’ refusal to recognize marriage equality. Maybe the Democratic Party can take a look back at history as a clue for how to shape the discussion moving forward. Voters need to understand the individual impact of Republican leadership in order to become invested enough to make a progressive change at the ballot box.