There’s an old Election-Day adage, “Republicans, pray for rain”; inclement weather, the thinking goes, depresses turnout and helps the GOP candidate.
So in a contest where the last polls showed the candidates separated by the very slimmest of margins – a razor-thin one tenth of one percentage point – you could forgive Democrats for wanting to blame Jon Ossoff’s bitter, 3.8-point loss in Georgia’s sixth congressional district Tuesday on bad weather; the region got more than a month’s worth of rain in a single afternoon, most of it confined to the bluest quadrants of the heavily red district.
Unfortunately for those Democrats, says Brad Gomez, associate professor of political science at Florida State University and the co-author of a 2007 study on the weather’s impact on presidential elections, they can’t explain away Ossoff’s loss so easily. Special elections like the one held this week in Georgia “are most likely to bring out ‘core voters’ who tend to vote regularly and are less likely to be affected by changes in the cost of voting, such as those imposed by bad weather,” he says.
And in any event, Gomez says, more than half of the votes counted Tuesday were cast early, “meaning that yesterday’s weather was irrelevant to them.”
It wasn’t the biblical rain, and it wasn’t – as some said when Democrat James Thompson lost another special election in Kansas a few months ago – for any lack of help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The DCCC kicked in $5 million to aid Ossoff’s bid, on top of the $23.6 million he raised on his own. The election amounted to the most expensive House race in history.
Ossoff’s loss and the narrower defeat, also on Tuesday, of Archie Parnell in South Carolina’s fifth district, mean Democrats are zero for four in the special elections that have been called since Donald Trump was sworn in in January.
To be fair, part of that is by design: The four seats that came up for election were only open because those Congress members left to join Trump’s cabinet, and Trump only asked them to join his cabinet because he believed their seats to be a lock for the GOP candidate. And as Nate Silver pointed out, three of the four candidates dramatically outperformed expectations: Thompson by 22.5 points, Parnell by 17.4 and Rob Quist, the Democrat who lost a bid for Montana’s House seat to Greg Gianforte, by 16.6. Ossoff underperformed his benchmark by 0.1 point.
But Ossoff’s loss, particularly given its astronomically high price tag, should prompt some soul-searching within the party. Like Hillary Clinton, who raised $1.2 billion to Trump’s $646 million, Ossoff significantly outraised his opponent, by a margin of nearly 5-to-1. Fundraising wasn’t enough. Outside groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund and National Republican Congressional Committee stepped in to help the GOP candidate, Karen Handel, make up the difference, giving $18.2 million on her behalf.
Those groups spent their money on ads tying Ossoff’s candidacy to the most prodigious Democratic fundraiser of all: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Mailer after mailer, TV ad after TV ad reinforced the link between Ossoff and Pelosi, who internal GOP polling showed had strong negatives for Republican voters in the district. According to the Washington Post, Pelosi had 98 percent name recognition in the district but her approval rating was “35 points underwater.”
Democrats have been counting on Pelosi to motivate their base for years, and it’s a tactic that, by all appearances, is as reliable as ever. (Pelosi, for what it’s worth, never campaigned with Ossoff or Parnell, and spent election night at a U2 concert in D.C.)
If she is so incredibly toxic in districts like Georgia’s sixth and South Carolina’s fifth, at some point Democrats have to ask whether Pelosi – as impressive a fundraiser as she is known to be – is more of a liability than an asset. Ossoff’s loss, and Parnell’s, should be a come-to-Jesus moment for Democrats. Instead of praying for dry weather, they might want to take a hard look at some of the factors within their control that are turning voters off in ostensibly competitive races like these.