Democrats can’t resist a savior, and they’ve placed an $8.3 million bet that they’ve found one in newcomer Jon Ossoff, 30, the surprising front-runner for a congressional seat in one of Atlanta’s conservative suburbs that hasn’t turned blue since 1976. The enthusiastic volunteers, celebrities and record number of small-dollar donors flooding Georgia’s sixth congressional district dream that if Ossoff could capture the seat formerly held by Newt Gingrich and cabinet secretary Tom Price, it would launch Democrats on the unlikely path to retake the House during the 2018 midterms.
National Republicans are sufficiently concerned to have invested more than $2 million in negative ads trying to blunt Ossoff’s momentum. They hope to keep Ossoff under 50 percent in a crowded April 18 “jungle primary,” deny him outright victory, then unite conservative voters in a June runoff against a single Republican challenger.
It’s a seductive story line: anti-Trump forces trying to steal a seat in the solid South while Republicans fight to ward off a 2017 version of Scott Brown, whose 2009 special-election victory in Massachusetts foreshadowed the GOP midterm rout of 2010. It has all the promise and dramatic potential that statement victories bring to supporters.
But despite the symbolism and emotional lift an Ossoff victory would provide, this is a dangerous strategy. If Ossoff wins, Democrats would be one seat closer to the 24 needed to take Congress, but all this energy and all these millions of dollars — let alone supportive tweets from George Takei — would do nothing to lessen the party’s deep structural hole, even if they gave beleaguered Dems a moment of emotional reprieve.
Indeed, Democrats find themselves in this weakened position - a majority party that’s powerless in Washington and with less influence in state legislatures than at any time in decades - because they neglected to invest down-ballot for years, failed to turn out voters during nonpresidential years, and believed a seeming demographic edge would ensure long-term majorities. Last week, for example, even as money poured into Ossoff’s war chest, national Democrats seemed caught by surprise that there were potentially competitive special congressional elections in Kansas and Montana, as well.
Republicans, meanwhile, did not focus on Congress during the 2010 midterms. Instead, they focused on a sophisticated, long-term plan called REDMAP (short for Redistricting Majority Project) to capture crucial state legislative seats that allowed them to rewire district lines nationwide and bake in a GOP advantage.
It worked brilliantly. After 2010, that state-level dominance handed Republicans complete control over the drawing of 193 U.S. House districts (compared to just 44 for Democrats), even in blue and purple states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. Then in 2012, the GOP captured 13 of 18 seats in Pennsylvania despite fewer overall votes, grabbed a 9-5 edge in Michigan, and leveraged a 12-4 leg-up in Ohio. Not a single seat has changed hands in those states this decade.
Republicans hold 34 of 47 House seats from those purple states. Add Wisconsin (5-3 GOP), North Carolina (10-3 GOP) and Virginia (7-4 GOP) and Republicans have held the same 56-23 edge (more than two to one) after three very distinctive elections on these maps.
If Democrats want to reverse this, the place to start is not throwing millions at Georgia’s sixth. These lines are drawn largely by state legislatures, and Republicans have built themselves equally impressive advantages in key states. Before 2010, Democrats controlled state houses in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. They have not sniffed control on the maps the GOP drew after its big sweep.
In Ohio, Republicans control the General Assembly 66-33 and the State Senate by a 24-9 margin. In Pennsylvania, the GOP edge is 121-81 in the House and 34-16 in the Senate. Democratic candidates have earned more overall votes than Republicans in Michigan’s state house races all decade, but the 63-47 GOP majority has not budged. The 64-member GOP caucus in Wisconsin’s assembly is the biggest in several decades.
Democrats would earn a valuable emergency brake if a blue wave were to undo the gerrymandered GOP majority in Congress. This remains a long shot, despite the president’s tumbling approval ratings and the current tumult in the House. Most political scientists agree that Democrats would need upward of 55 percent of the House popular vote to even have a 50/50 chance of gaining the majority.
Even if they thread this needle, however, the party’s deep disadvantage in state houses is unlikely to move. The 2012 Obama wave earned Democrats just four seats in Michigan’s House and two in Pennsylvania’s. They gained none in Wisconsin and lost a seat in Ohio. It would take an unprecedented tsunami, not just a wave, to move those margins.
There is a smarter play for Democrats. Governors in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin have veto power over the maps. Virginia will elect a new governor this November. Voters in those other five states elect a new governor in 2018. If Democrats can win these statewide races, they’d be in a position to force less partisan maps — and, perhaps, have a platform for genuine nonpartisan electoral reform. Lose those six races, and the fight for redistricting in 2020 could be over by next fall, and 2030 would become the party’s next shot at the maps.
Ossoff could well sneak above 50 percent on April 18. He could just as easily lose to a single Republican challenger in a June special election, or win now then fail to hold the seat next fall. Price, after all, carried this red district with 62 percent in November. Trump barely took the district, edging Hillary Clinton by only one percentage point, proving a Republican can easily overcome Trump’s relative unpopularity in a general.
Squandering millions on an emotional pick-me-up — dollars and focus that could be invested in obvious races with greater impact — is just the kind of thinking that put the Democrats in this hole in the first place.
Daley is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count”, a senior fellow at FairVote, and the former editor in chief of Salon.