AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Democrats have now failed to pick up any House seats in this year's special elections. Their best chance was arguably in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, a suburban one near Atlanta where Donald Trump barely edged out Hillary Clinton last year. But last night, Republican Karen Handel was able to declare victory over Democrat Jon Ossoff. As NPR's Geoff Bennett reports, Democrats in Congress have spent the day trying to figure out what they need to do differently if they want to take back control of the House next year.
GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Democrats have racked up defeats in Kansas, Montana and, as of last night, South Carolina and Georgia.
JOE CROWLEY: We're disappointed. We didn't win.
BENNETT: That's New York Congressman Joe Crowley. Crowley chairs the House Democratic Caucus, and he says it's important to remember that Democrats in those four races were trying to flip Republican strongholds, districts handpicked by the White House as President Trump tapped members of Congress to serve in his administration.
CROWLEY: Typically they don't go and pick folks in districts where they think they're going to lose that seat to a Democrat. They pick people who are in safe and tough districts for Democrats to win.
BENNETT: Another reason why Democrats shouldn't feel all that demoralized is Karen Handel's slim margin of victory, says House Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Linda Sanchez.
LINDA SANCHEZ: In the previous election, the Republican candidate won by more than 20 points. To come within a hair's breadth of winning that seat in a special election is nothing short of extraordinary.
BENNETT: That political consolation prize doesn't sit very well with some of the party's rank-and-file members like Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio who says coming close isn't good enough.
TIM RYAN: I just think if you start rationalizing and participate in a level of delusion that we cut the lead, you know, by however many points, that that's somehow good - to me, that's unacceptable. That's not a winner's mentality.
BENNETT: Like Ryan, Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts is also venting about the loss. He says the defeat better be a wakeup call for Democrats.
SETH MOULTON: Look. I think the Democratic Party has to come to terms with the fact that what we're doing isn't working, and it's time for some change. I think it's time for a new generation of leadership.
BENNETT: It's a criticism rooted in generational angst about the future of the Democratic Party and its leaders. Moulton is a 38-year-old Iraq war veteran elected to Congress in 2014.
MOULTON: Certainly one thing I learned as a Marine is - you know, my job description was very simple. You're responsible for everything your platoon does or fails to do. I think our leadership owes us an explanation for what's going on in these four elections but also a plan moving forward. That's the most important part.
BENNETT: A handful of Democrats pinned the party's loss in Georgia on House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. She's a favorite foil of Republicans, and ads like these blanketed the Atlanta media market in the lead-up to Tuesday's election.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ossoff lived and worked with the liberals in Washington. That's why Nancy Pelosi and her allies are pouring millions into his campaign.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ossoff would vote with Nancy Pelosi to weaken our military. Nancy Pelosi's liberal agenda put America 20 trillion in debt, and Jon Ossoff is on her side.
RYAN: Those are still effective ads that hurt our candidates. And everybody knows where I stand on this.
BENNETT: Again, that's Congressman Tim Ryan. He tried and failed last fall to unseat Pelosi as House minority leader. Congressman Bill Pascrell of New Jersey downplays the attacks.
BILL PASCRELL: They demonized Nancy in 2010. They demonized her in 2006. We're used to that.
BENNETT: Pelosi still has broad support among House Democrats. California Congresswoman Karen Bass says while the Pelosi attack ads might have worked in the traditionally red 6th District of Georgia...
KAREN BASS: In the districts where we are truly competitive, I don't think that message is going to hold very much.
BENNETT: Democrats see 70 House seats that could be easier to flip than that Georgia district. They need to win 24 seats to take control of the House in 2018. Geoff Bennett, NPR News, the Capitol.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKEY GRAVES SONG, "IF NOT FOR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.