The good thing about failures is if you pay enough attention to them, you can learn how to succeed the next time.
The Democrats have a lot of material to learn from these days.
They just suffered a major failure with Jon Ossoff's loss to Republican Karen Handel in the special House election in Georgia Tuesday night. That makes the Democrats 0 for 4 in special Congressional elections since President Donald Trump took office.
This was the sorest loss of all as the election broke a record for spending in a House race. The money total hit an astounding $55 million, with by far most of the cash flooding into the Ossoff campaign and 86 percent of his money coming from out of state. The party even shipped in several big name celebrities to beat the bushes for the Ossoff campaign.
It seems like the Democrats literally can't buy a victory.
But there are some key lessons they can learn from all of that spending that led to nothing more than a "close, but no cigar" result. And even though they won this round, the Republicans can learn something too.
Here are the top 3 takeaways for the Democrats from the sound and fury of Georgia's 6th district election:
1) The Democrats need a new national message to win local elections
Before the Democrats talk about red states and blue states, or districts that can be "flipped" in elections, they have to craft a national message to voters in the country as a whole. A national party's identity is a dominant factor for every candidate who runs for Congress under that party's nomination. And as much as Ossoff himself shied away from obsessing about President Trump, his party did the opposite.
The Democrats' singular message since even before the inauguration has been doubling and tripling down on the efforts to resist, delegitimize, and even impeach President Trump. Ossoff could not run away from that, especially when almost all of his record campaign war chest was coming from non-Georgia Democrats who clearly only took an interest in him this special election because of what it would do to the White House if he won.
Democrats need to start getting their national spokespeople talking about something other than Donald Trump. And that includes everyone from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to progressive heroes like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They can't just oppose him or even just oppose Republican infrastructure, health care, and tax plans. They need to promote some new ideas of their own. Otherwise, the next Jon Ossoff type out there will be swimming upstream against the cogent argument that he or she is just going to be a small cog in a national protest machine that will do little the change the lives of the voters in any given district or state.
2) The Democrats really need to find persuasive candidates
But even if the Democrats miraculously shake themselves out of their Trump obsession, they still need to do a better job of finding persuasive and appealing candidates. Ossoff seemed like a very nice person, but are the Democrats telling us that a 30-year-old guy who had only worked as a Congressional staffer and no longer lived in the district where was running was the best they could come up with? If you watched Ossoff on the campaign trail or in the debates versus Handel, you saw a well-mannered, intelligent individual. But he wasn't a candidate who excited voters, and that's what you need in such a highly politicized atmosphere.
Of course, finding exciting candidates is easier said than done, Plus, exciting candidates can also be excitable and thus they present a potential gamble. The Republicans got burned in this way back in 2010 when their chances to win back the Senate were undermined by some ill-advised Tea Party backed candidate losers like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada.
This is a place where some old style machine politics sorting is called for. If the Democrats as a national party were willing to spend tens of millions of dollars to win a single House race, shouldn't they have spent a little more time finding a more experienced and viable candidate? Do the Democrats think they've presented a clear and convincing enough message to the voters that transcends the individual personalities running in any given election?
3) Coming close in traditionally red states and districts doesn't mean much
Some national liberal pundits are still chalking up this special election result as a "moral victory" because it was such a close result in a traditionally Republican stronghold district.
"Almost" really doesn't count for the Democrats who need a victory already. More importantly, while they're getting closer in some red states, President Trump actually flipped supposedly safe Democrat states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The Trump phenomenon and major events like the Great Recession and the bailouts have shaken up the electoral map in this country in ways both establishment parties don't seem to notice. Either way, winning is all that matters and the Democrats aren't winning. Don't be fooled by any pundits trying to peddle the "but the Democrats are gaining on Trump!" nonsense.
*Bonus lesson: The Republicans have something to learn from this too
Of course, that's where the GOP needs to be paying attention too. Their win in Georgia Tuesday night wasn't just the result of the Democrats' blunders. They smartly backed a woman candidate who pushed a common sense locally-focused message. Handel had real government experience as the former Georgia Secretary of State, but she also was a businesswoman for years in more than just one industry. If the Republicans spend too much time laughing it up over the Democrats' mistakes, they might miss the fact that people like Handel are a perfect type of candidate to run in a number of Congressional elections to come. She doesn't seem to have the kind of buoyant personality and speaking style to be a truly national candidate, but other women with similar life and political experiences are out there for the GOP to find and recruit.
Still, the bottom line here is the Democrats need to change course and do it fast. They just spent all the politcal money in the world on the wrong candidate whom they still shackled with an untenable national label. No matter how unpopular President Trump is, they simply cannot win with their existing formula. That is clear to everyone now. What isn't clear is whether this time the Democrats will actually stop, listen and learn.
Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.
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