President Donald Trump claimed hard-fought congressional victories Wednesday, intensifying an already difficult day of questions for Capitol Hill Democrats.
Republicans won two seats in the U.S. House late Tuesday, defeating Democrats in South Carolina and also in the most expensive U.S. House race in history, Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. The contests to fill those open seats increased Republican margins in Congress, while disappointing Democrats who saw the special elections as an early test for the Trump presidency.
Republican Karen Handel, a former state official, beat Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff by 3.8 points in the wealthy, educated suburbs of Georgia's 6th district. House Speaker Paul Ryan congratulated her on a “hard-earned and well-deserved victory,” saying in a statement released Tuesday, “Democrats from coast to coast threw everything they had at this race and Karen would not be defeated.”
Democrats poured millions of dollars into the race, hoping to capitalize on Trump’s low approval ratings nationwide and his weak showing among district voters in the 2016 presidential election.
"Well, the Special Elections are over and those that want to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN are 5 and O!,” Trump tweeted early Wednesday. “All the Fake News, all the money spent = 0."
Since Trump became president, however, his party actually has won four special elections to fill seats vacated by Republicans leaving to serve in his administration or in other posts. A Democrat won the fifth election.
Trump followed up with advice for Hill Democrats, tweeting they "would do much better as a party if they got together with Republicans on health care, tax cuts, security. Obstruction doesn't work!"
Democrats’ way forward
The president was on the mind of Democrats gathering for their weekly conference meeting Wednesday morning – but frustrated members made it clear they would find their own way forward after the disappointing losses.
“We are spending way too much time talking about Donald Trump and we’re being overwhelmed with our own anger toward him,” Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio told reporters. “We’re losing the ability to connect with voters on what the hell they think about every single day.”
Tim Ryan lost a challenge to longtime Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for leadership of House Democrats last fall. Ossoff faced a barrage of ads linking him with Pelosi, who often is criticized by Republicans for representing what they call extreme liberal points of view.
“I think it’s very concerning that that tactic still has some punch," Tim Ryan said of the challenges Ossoff faced, “It’s part of the broader national brand that average people don’t feel connected to the Democratic Party. Walk up the street and ask 10 people what the Democrats stand for, you’ll get 10 different answers. That’s no way to build a national party.”
The losses left many Democrats looking for a new way forward to mount an opposition to President Trump. But for now they said a different approach would rest on the party message - not Pelosi.
“I don’t think when people vote, they vote based on leadership in Washington,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “They vote based on ideas that the candidate has, and we have to speak more to the everyday working class people who look to us for leadership.”
Some Democrats saw Handel’s failure to maintain the 23-point lead won by the district’s previous Republican winner - current Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price - as a positive sign for the future. Intense Democratic grassroots efforts on the ground in Georgia likely made up some of that ground. Many Democrats hope to harness that energy during the 2018 mid-terms, when the entire House will be up for re-election.
“We have closed the gap dramatically,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, who lost a bid to become the chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Ellison said the Georgia 6th was not as competitive as 64 other House seats that Democrats could win in 2018 to wrest control away from Republicans, adding, “They’re the ones who better be worried.”