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After special election losses, Democrats seek winning message

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., speaks to WJAR from Capitol Hill on June 21, 2017. (Sinclair Broadcast Group)

For the fourth time since failing to retain control of the White House in November, Democrats came up short in a special election Tuesday night, missing yet another chance to flip a House seat previously held by a Republican who joined President Trump’s Cabinet.

Republican Karen Handel defeated Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s sixth district, a disappointing finish for Democrats who poured millions into what became the most expensive congressional race in history. Some in the party are now looking inward to understand where they went wrong in their attempt to secure the seat left behind by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

“We have to, as Democrats, continue to talk about the issues that matter in people’s lives, what we’re doing, what we propose to do,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I.

Special elections in Kansas and Montana earlier this year were closer than expected, giving Democrats confidence that they could actually win in the Georgia sixth, which has been reliably electing Republicans for decades. A Democratic candidate also lost in a special election in South Carolina on Tuesday by an unexpectedly close margin.

Democrats have yet to score a significant victory against Trump and the Republican majority, despite consistently low approval ratings for the president and the GOP health care bill. A recent CBS News poll found that only about 30 percent of voters believe the country would be better off with Democrats in control of Congress.

According to Cicilline, the party must now zero in on economic issues that voters worry about like jobs, income inequality, college debt, and protecting social security.

“They know the economic system isn’t working for them. It’s rigged against them,” he said. “So we have been putting together a strong economic message that really demonstrates that Democrats understand what’s happening in people’s lives, we have a set of solutions that respond to that, and that we’re fighting for them.”

Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., has a similar prescription for his party.

“What I hear when I’m in my district is people want us to get this economy on track and they want to see government get on track as well, and I think that’s really got to be the focus,” he said.

While economic statistics are improving, many communities are not yet feeling the effects of the recovery, and candidates must recognize that.

“There has simply got to be a focus on getting this economy moving, and some of that also means getting Congress moving too,” Kilmer said. “I think people are tired of the partisan bickering.”

Cicilline believes Democrats can offer a message that resonates with voters, and Ossoff’s strong second-place finish in a district that Price won by 23 points last November is a sign of progress.

“This is a deeply red district and we came within striking distance,” he said.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., dismissed Democratic attempts to take solace in only losing the election by a few percentage points.

“I consider any victory by even one vote decisive,” he said.

As Republicans in the Senate grapple with health care reform, he sees this streak of special election victories as an affirmation of the GOP’s “America First” policies.

“President Trump’s agenda may not be popular with some folks in the national media but it is working on main street and with regular folks all across the country,” he said.

Gaetz hopes Republicans will be encouraged by these victories to pass more substantive legislation and overcome some of the hurdles they have encountered since January.

“Democrats spent tens of millions of dollars to try to steal one of these seats,” he said. “They were defeated at every turn, and it shows regular folks across the country want immigration reform, they want to see taxes cut, regulations rolled back, that we stand up for our veterans and our military.”

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