The news that Democrat Jon Ossoff decisively lost his race for Georgia's 6th House district is devastating for Democrats — but not for the reasons you think. That lone seat, now set to be occupied by Republican Karen Handel, is unlikely to affect voting for TrumpCare, or really for any piece of noxious legislation that drifts out of the GOP caucus like a cloud of poison gas over a battlefield. The real problem is that Democrats seem not to have learned the lessons of the recent past and are still prioritizing national races over more winnable and consequential contests elsewhere.
Democrats thought they could strike a symbolic blow against Trump and the Republicans in Georgia, and you can hardly blame them given the polling. There's nothing wrong with moral victories, but their value does depend on the price. The race for Georgia's 6th district was the most expensive in the entire history of the House of Representatives. The winner only gets to keep the seat for 17 months, until the whole chamber is put up for election again in November 2018. Even if he had won on Tuesday, Ossoff would have been no better than a 50-50 bet for re-election next year. Nate Silver argued that losing the race might convince Republicans to move against the American Health Care Act, but this is dubious. A two-to-one polling margin against the bill has yet to convince anyone in the party to slow the runaway train yet. It's hard to believe a single loss in Georgia would have done so.
Democrats might argue that their massive effort in Georgia was a sop to the party's base, which wants a spirited fight everywhere they can find one. Activists were demoralized by the party's lack of major investment in last month's special election in Montana, where Democrat Rob Quist lost narrowly to Republican body-slammer Greg Gianforte. The same was true in the April special election in Kansas, which was also much closer than expected given the underlying partisan dynamics of each district.
The party must be cognizant of where its voters are and what they want, and respond accordingly. But it also needs to keep an eye on the bigger picture. And the reality is that there is a major election this year that is far, far more important than the one that took place in Georgia last night: the gubernatorial election in Virginia.
Virginia has drifted to the Democrats over the past three presidential cycles, to the point where it is, at worst, a lean-blue entity. Yet the state legislature is controlled by the GOP, and the state's House delegation consists of seven Republicans and four Democrats. This is because Democrats lost crucial elections prior to the post-2010 reapportionment, allowing Republicans to draw the district lines to their advantage. The winner of this year's gubernatorial race between Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie will determine whether Democrats will be able to have a voice in the redistricting process after 2020, and thus the ability to send a fairer delegation to Washington.
That Virginia process was mirrored nationwide in Republican efforts to recapture crucial state legislatures and governorships in Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Wisconsin. As David Daley detailed in Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy, the GOP sunk a comparatively small amount of money into this plan, which they called REDMAP (the Redistricting Majority Project). REDMAP paid off in ways its architects could only have dreamed. As Democrats got cozy in D.C., seemingly secure in the hands of President Obama, Republicans were busy redrawing the maps in any state they could get their hands on and baking in control of state legislatures and congressional delegations seemingly until the end of time.
Consider the fruits of their efforts. Republicans have more House seats not only in Democratic-leaning Virginia, but insane advantages in a series of closely divided states, including, most egregiously, Pennsylvania (13-5), North Carolina (10-3), Ohio (12-4), Michigan (9-5), and Florida (16-11). Republican victories in races like the New Jersey gubernatorial election gave Republicans effective veto power over the process and prevented Democrats from crafting more favorable maps for themselves even in states where they could have had total control over the process. This is to say nothing of the states where Republicans have a statewide advantage, run the show basically uncontested, and gerrymander the maps absurdly. Hence, 25 Republicans to 11 Democrats in the House from Texas. Of course, Democrats have rigged the delegations in a number of states too, including Maryland and Connecticut. But overall, the GOP's wipeout of Democrats in 2009 and 2010 allowed them to control or influence the process in far more states than Democrats.
In terms of control of the House of Representatives, that's basically the ballgame. If all of the above delegations were evenly split, Democrats might have retaken the House in 2012, and would have far more seats, though probably not a majority, today.
That might mean the Affordable Care Act could have been augmented with a public option during Obama's second term. Real action could have been taken to grant citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants. Progressive priorities across the board could have been pursued, at least until Republicans retook the Senate in 2014. Perhaps they never would have done so had D.C. not looked like a fourth-grade production of Les Miserables to voters. And if Republicans held only a narrow House majority today, TrumpCare would likely have been DOA rather than a looming menace that threatens to kill and immiserate millions.
Daley says he understands why Democrats fought so hard for Georgia. He told me before the results were in that "a loss would be catastrophic and likely set off a deepening civil war." But he thinks the party needs to pursue an "all-of-the-above" strategy in which it splits resources between winnable races like Georgia's 6th and less prominent but critically important state races. Because it is those races that will determine whether Democrats are competitive between 2022 and 2030, and possibly beyond. "Win one statewide election in a swing state, earn a shot at fairer maps," Daley said. "Lose those races in 2018, and Democrats could find themselves in a continued disadvantage in each of those states until 2031."
Those are the stakes. Do Democrats really understand them? With all due respect to the spirited campaign run by Ossoff and his supporters, the answer seems to be no.