What Jon Ossoff’s loss means for Democrats trying to win swing seats in Miami

Jon Ossoff campaigns in Georgia.
Jon Ossoff campaigns in Georgia. McClatchy

Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old centrist Democrat who didn’t live in the Atlanta-area district he was seeking to represent in Congress and whose resume includes stints as a Capitol Hill staffer and documentary film producer, just ran the most expensive campaign ever for a House seat.

He lost.

Now, the focus turns to the 2018 election for Democrats where their best chance at breaking up a Republican-controlled government runs through the House.

“We as Democrats have to come to terms with the fact that we lost again,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat gaining buzz for a potential presidential run in 2020. “We’re the party that stands up for working families, the middle class and yet many of them are not voting for us.”

Democrats must flip 24 seats to control the House, and two Miami-Dade seats currently occupied by Republicans are considered near must-wins: the open seat occupied by retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the Miami-to-Key West seat occupied by Rep. Carlos Curbelo.

“I applaud the enthusiasm behind Ossoff’s candidacy, but how many Democrats could we have gotten elected for $30 million?” said Scott Fuhrman, a Miami Democrat who lost to Ros-Lehtinen by 10 percentage points in 2016 even though national Democrats chose not to spend in the race. Fuhrman was planning to run against Ros-Lehtinen again before she announced her retirement and a slew of Democrats jumped in the race. He dropped out in early June.

Local Democrats are quick to warn outsiders like Daily Kos Elections, a liberal blog that kick-started the cash flow to Ossoff, that using messages that resonate with the Democratic base nationally may not be the best idea in Miami, where foreign policy issues in Latin America are of large importance to Democrats, independents and Republicans alike.

“In Miami generally it is very difficult to tie national winds to what goes on in Miami-Dade County because we’re such a unique little island of diversity,” said Ben Pollara, a Democratic consultant who worked on Fuhrman’s campaign and will work in the election to replace Ros-Lehtinen.

Fuhrman put part of the blame on minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Ben Ray Luján, chair of the Democrats’ fundraising organization.

“Moral victories in politics are BS and at the end of the day Democrats needed a win last night and they didn’t get it and people should be held accountable,” Fuhrman said. “For whatever reason people tend to fail up in our organization.”

The nearly $50 million invested into Ossoff’s campaign, along with months of attention from national Democrats and constant media coverage, didn’t pan out.

Luján released a memo on Wednesday putting a positive spin on the loss for Democrats nationwide.

“The margin was close in this deep red district, and Jon Ossoff pushed the race to the limit in both the primary and runoff by impressively mobilizing the base and persuading independents and moderate Republicans,” he wrote. “We will carry those key lessons forward in order to compete in districts as Republican-leaning as Georgia, and in the dozens and dozens of districts on our battlefield that are much more competitive.”

Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based Democratic consultant who is working on the race to replace Ros-Lehtinen, said the crop of announced candidates with deep Miami roots makes it tough for national Republicans to portray whoever wins the Democratic nomination in the Miami-Dade seats as an out-of-touch carpetbagger in cahoots with Pelosi, as Republicans did repeatedly and successfully with Ossoff.

“In these districts there’s going to be authentic, locally tied candidates who are going to be able to tell their story and that’s what’s going to be able to matter the most,” Ulvert said.

Pollara said Tuesday night’s result is good news for Miami Democrats, despite the doom-and-gloom rhetoric from others in the party.

“Demographics are destiny,” Pollara said, adding that Ossoff’s loss in a wealthy suburban district outside Atlanta makes it hard to compare to the Ros-Lehtinen and Curbelo districts, given that they are majority Hispanic.

“There are a lot of districts around the country that provide better prospects for Democrats, so it’s important to realize that the ground that Jon Ossoff made up in this district is significant and that bodes well for Democrats in races across the country,” Moulton said. “But at the end of the day you have to win and Democrats have got to get back in the habit of winning again.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty