On the heels of Democrat Jon Ossoff's narrow loss to Republican Karen Handel in the high-profile Georgia special election on Tuesday, many commentators are pinning the defeat on Democrats' glaring lack of an inspiring and ambitious progressive agenda.
"Democrats can excite their base and also win over voters who are frustrated with both parties with a vision to transform our nation into one that serves the many and not a powerful few."
—The Working Families Party
In a statement released as the race came to a close, MoveOn.org executive director Anna Galland acknowledged Ossoff's success in making a race in a deeply red district close, but argued Democrats must embrace a platform that calls for "sweeping change" if they are to turn tight losses into decisive victories.
"There are two lessons in the Georgia results," Galland argued. "One, that the Resistance movement is putting deep red districts and states in play. Two, even so, Democrats cannot take any race for granted—and if they want to win these tight races, they must do more than just be anti-Trump and spend millions of dollars. They must put forward a bold progressive vision for our country, running on core Democratic values."
Galland went on to note the Ossoff campaign failed repeatedly to place the Republican healthcare plan—which is deeply unpopular—at the center of attention, instead opting to focus on "cutting spending" and opposing Medicare for all.
"Democrats will not win back power merely by serving as an alternative to Trump and Republicans," she concluded.
The call for Democrats to cultivate a message amounting to more than "we're not Trump" was echoed by the Working Families Party, which in a statement called for "Democratic candidates to run on a bold, inclusive populist platform."
"Democrats can excite their base and also win over voters who are frustrated with both parties with a vision to transform our nation into one that serves the many and not a powerful few," the statement concludes.
Progressive groups were not alone in concluding the Democrats' failure to offer a positive vision has cost them crucial elections and unnecessarily ceded ground to the Republican Party.
Vox's Matt Yglesias noted that while the attacks Ossoff faced from his GOP counterparts were demonstrably unfair, his campaign's decision to portray him "as blandly as possible" diminished his ability to counter with a sufficiently inspiring narrative. He concluded this is a problem for Democrats not just in a handful of special elections, but nationally as well.
"Would Ossoff have won if he ran on an economic justice agenda? We don't know. But we do know that he lost doing the opposite."
—Ben Spielberg"Right now on healthcare and many other issues, Democrats suffer from a cacophony of white papers and a paucity of unity around any kind of vision or story they want to paint of what is wrong with America today and what is the better country they want to build for the future." Until Democrats are able to articulate such a story, Yglesias added, "they're going to struggle to mobilize supporters in the way they need to win tough races."
In the weeks leading up to Tuesday's election, Democratic Party operatives made much of Ossoff's appeal to center-right voters and suburban moderates put off by President Donald Trump.
Before the first round of the special election—in which Ossoff fell just short of the 50 percent necessary to avoid a run-off—came to a close, Brian Fallon, a CNN political commentator and former press secretary for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, remarked that Ossoff's popularity in a red district demonstrated "the path to retaking the House...runs through the Panera Breads of America."
Former Obama staffer Dan Pfeiffer pursued a similar line in response to Tuesday's results, writing, "To take back the House, we need lean GOP voters who disapprove of Trump to vote for a Dem."
Critics, however, have argued this is precisely the approach that has failed time and time again; it "hasn't been doing well for Democrats for quite some time," wrote policy analyst Ben Spielberg.
Instead of chasing moderates, Spielberg suggests, Democrats should embrace the groundswell of support forming around progressive policies like Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, and free college tuition and turn it into a winning message. Democrats' strategy, he wrote, "should be constructed around what people need."
"Would Ossoff have won if he ran on an economic justice agenda? We don't know," Spielberg concluded. "But we do know that he lost doing the opposite."