In the most expensive U.S. House race in history, Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel Tuesday night in a special election in Georgia’s sixth congressional district. The outcome of the race—Handel won 53 percent to Ossoff’s 47 percent, a much larger margin than predicted—should remind Democrats of the last time they flooded an election with out-of-state cash: Wendy Davis’s infamous run for Texas governor in 2014.
There were two main angles to the story of this race: money and Trump. Ossoff spent $25 million in a race that was largely billed as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency, with Ossoff predictably styled as a symbol of the anti-Trump “resistance.”
But it turned out to be more of a referendum on the Democratic Party, which should know that huge amounts of funding from outside donors and the Democratic National Committee doesn’t guarantee a win. It should also know that voters don’t really like being told what to think, especially not by people who don’t live in their state. The bulk of Ossoff’s campaign donations of course came from large Democratic states like New York, California, and Massachusetts, with a mere 14 percent coming from Georgia voters. By contrast, 56 percent of Handel’s contributions came from in-state donors.
The Lesson Of Wendy Davis
If you want to understand what happened to Ossoff on Tuesday night, you have to understand what happened the last time donations poured into a red state thanks to major spending by the DNC and fundraising efforts by big-time Democratic donors.
That was in Texas, in 2014. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis had burst onto the national political scene the year before as a state senator, staging a 13-hour filibuster on the floor of the Texas Senate to kill a Republican-backed bill to regulate abortion clinics. The pink sneakers she sported during the filibuster and the temporary victory she scored against the Texas GOP’s so-called “war on women” made her a darling of elite coastal Democrats. She was feted in Washington DC, splashed on the cover of Texas Monthly and The New York Times Magazine, and lauded as a hero and a “superstar” by Democrats and editors across the country.
Amid the rush of it all, she was talked into running for governor. Texas had not elected a Democratic governor since Ann Richards won in 1990. Democrats, especially those outside Texas, convinced themselves that Davis could be the first Democrat and the first woman to win the Texas governorship in nearly a quarter-century. No Democrat had even won a statewide office since then (and still hasn’t). Now here was a Davis, a tough, no-nonsense blonde from Fort Worth who had a degree from Harvard and wasn’t afraid to stand up to the women-hating Texas GOP.
There was a sense of destiny about the whole thing. Davis’s filibuster had drawn Cecile Richards, daughter of the late Richards and president of Planned Parenthood, to the state capitol in Austin as part of a massive protest during the state senate’s deliberations over the abortion bill. In the months before the 2014 gubernatorial election, Davis published an outrageously titled political memoir that detailed her own abortions. The whole thing was such a perfect story it just had to be true.
During her campaign against then-state attorney general Greg Abbott, the money poured in from all over the country. Davis raked in $6.2 million from nearly 30,000 out-of-state donors—21 percent of her total haul. Much like Ossoff’s campaign, much of it came from large Democratic states like New York ($1.1 million), California ($1.6 million), and Massachusetts (nearly $1 million). She had a contribution-sharing arrangement with Battleground Texas, a group run by former Obama operatives working to turn Texas blue, or at least make it competitive. Although Davis lagged in the polls, she was hailed by Democratic strategists as a “national political figure.”
It wasn’t even that Davis was favored to win—in fact, as election day neared a Davis victory was thought to be a long-shot. But she didn’t need to win. If she could just get close, it would transform Texas politics. It would reveal the fatal chink in the Texas GOP’s armor, and herald the arrival of a young, vibrant, and unapologetic Democratic Party in the Lone Star State.
Then the election came. Davis lost to Abbott by more than 20 points and was never heard from again.
Democrats Will Keep Losing If They Keep Ignoring Voters
The lesson of Wendy Davis should have stuck with the Democratic Party, especially after their unexpected 2016 loss to Trump. Among the many big lessons of 2016 was that you can’t shame or browbeat voters into casting ballots for your side. Ossoff made his campaign about “resistance” to Trump instead of about why his policies would be better than those of his opponent for the people of Georgia’s sixth congressional district.
That was more or less the approach of Hillary Clinton last year, and, to a lesser extent, Davis in 2014. Trump was of course just a creepy reality TV star back then, but Davis set herself against the Texas GOP and its “war on women.” Somehow she thought that in a state where 62 percent of voters support banning abortion after 20 weeks, she could run as a pro-choice champion and, you know, probably do okay.
Her mistake was the same as Clinton’s, which was the same as Ossoff’s, which is the same as the Democratic Party’s in general: they don’t much care what voters really think, or what they really want. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, Democrats seem to think the people have to earn the confidence of the party. And if they don’t, would it not be easier simply to dissolve the people and elect another?