Washington (AFP) - Frozen out of power in Washington and having lost a string of congressional races this year, Democrats are struggling to craft winning strategies to convert disillusionment with President Donald Trump into victory in 2018's midterm elections.
The party fielded a hodgepodge of candidates in four special elections in recent months, including a banjo-strumming cowboy poet in Montana. Most recently Democrats nominated a young novice in Georgia, where the party, judging it had its best pick-up opportunity, threw millions of dollars into the race.
Yet each time, Republicans beat back the advances. And Democratic lawmakers, strategists and party officials have been left scratching their heads about how to turn it around and launch a viable bid to reclaim Congress next year.
"They're definitely licking their wounds," Kerwin Swint, professor and chair of the political science department at Georgia's Kennesaw State University, told AFP.
Debate has swirled among Democrats about what strategy to deploy: going all in with a nationwide anti-Trump agenda, or tailoring individual races to local economic issues in a bid to repair fraying connections between the Democratic Party and the common voter.
The Georgia race showed "the effectiveness of Trump's staying power" despite the scandals rocking the White House, Swint said.
"Democrats should not focus their campaigns about him, they should be about jobs," he added. "They need a much more focused economic pitch."
At the same time, Zac Petkanas, who directed Hillary Clinton's rapid-response operation during her 2016 presidential campaign, said Republicans should not see their four congressional victories as a sign all is well in Trumpworld.
In a normal political environment, the races in Georgia, Kansas, Montana and South Carolina -- to fill seats vacated by congressmen who joined Trump's cabinet -- would be blowouts for Republicans, given the overwhelming, ruby-red nature of the districts, Petkanas said in a telephone interview.
Instead, they were all within seven percentage points.
Trump and Republican lawmakers have gloated over the wins, "but I think in private they're actually very scared," he said.
"They are in for the races of their lives, and they know it."
- 'Unique opportunity' -
As Democrats seek to regroup, they are hobbled by a glaring omission: no clear party protagonist has emerged as a potential challenger to Trump in 2020.
Absent such a standard-bearer, some Democrats have begun urging House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the icon atop the party's hierarchy, to step aside and allow new blood into leadership.
"I don't think people in the Beltway are realizing just how toxic the Democratic Party brand is in so much of the country," congressman Tim Ryan, who unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi for the leadership position last year, told CNN in a blunt postmortem after the June 20 loss in Georgia.
The California congresswoman pushed back tensely against her party's rebels, insisting she has brought unity to the Democrats.
"My decision about how long I stay is not up to them," Pelosi, who is 77, told reporters.
Asked about the Democrats' doldrums and Pelosi's future role, Trump quipped that it would be "very sad for Republicans" if the congresswoman -- a favorite target of Republicans -- stepped down.
"I'd like to keep her right where she is, because our record is extraordinary against her," he told Fox on Friday.
The party in presidential power traditionally fares poorly during US midterm elections. In 2010, two years into Barack Obama's first term as president, Democrats got hammered, losing 63 seats and control of the 435-member House of Representatives.
Democrats now need to gain 24 seats to reclaim the House, and analysts say there are several dozen Republican-held seats in play.
In a memo this past week, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Ben Ray Lujan described at least 71 districts that are more competitive than the four contested so far this year.
"We have a unique opportunity to flip control of the House of Representatives in 2018," he wrote.
One reason Lujan is banking on victory: the Republican health care bill.
Senate Republicans on Thursday unveiled their plan, which would repeal much of Obama's signature health care reforms.
It has had a frosty reception. Democrats are counting on voters revolting against any lawmaker who supports legislation that could leave millions of Americans without health insurance.
"A lot will depend on where Trump's approval rating is next year, and health care will obviously mold that climate," Professor Swint said.