SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. — Democrats are closer than they ever could have imagined to winning a House seat in the Republican suburbs of Atlanta, and dealing a resounding blow to Donald Trump.
But they’re also gripped by anxiety about what happens if they fall short Tuesday.
A loss in Georgia’s special election here could leave the party demoralized, with little to show for all the furious organizing, fundraising and spending in a handful of congressional special elections in the early months of the Trump administration. As a result, Democrats are now straining to throw everything they have at Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District to push Jon Ossoff over the top against Republican Karen Handel, aiming to prove they can win the suburban districts that may pave the way to a House majority in 2018.
"Just like any sporting event, however unlikely it is that you’re close heading into the fourth quarter, a loss is bitterly disappointing and there will be some feeling of, ‘when do we get this done if it’s not this race?’" said longtime party strategist Dan Kanninen. "You’ll definitely see some hand-wringing from Democrats wondering when we’re going to get over that hump."
In public, the party insists that the mere act of keeping the contest close in a district the GOP routinely wins by over 20 points is a victory in itself. But behind closed doors, operatives and lawmakers expect a withering round of internal second-guessing if they come up short after pumping enough money into the pro-Ossoff effort to make it the most expensive congressional race ever.
And beyond recriminations, they’re worried the fundraising and organizing fire fueling the party in the Trump era could wane after so many resources were poured into Georgia — especially with no other big-ticket races looming to re-energize the base until the off-year gubernatorial elections in November.
"There’s a lot of anticipation that Democrats could do better than Hillary [Clinton] did, but it remains to be seen if Democrats can turn these so-called red districts into something purple," warned former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile.
With just hours left in the race to replace now-HHS Secretary Tom Price, Democrats’ internal polls mirror the public ones, suggesting Ossoff holds a slight lead over Handel, though the gap between them remains within the margins of error in the surveys.
According to Democrats close to the contest, the high early voting turnout has rendered Tuesday’s result less predictable than expected. And that unpredictability has party leaders — stung by criticism from liberal activists for not spending enough money on earlier special elections this year in Kansas and Montana — urging activists not to be disappointed by a tight race that ends in defeat.
Their concern is that anything less than victory could dampen the party’s torrid energy and cash flow, with the next round of House races still nearly a year-and-a-half away.
“From the start, the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] understood that winning the Georgia 6th special election would be a monumental task. Simply put, virtually every structural advantage benefits Republicans in a special election in this traditionally conservative district,” wrote DCCC Executive Director Dan Sena in an expectation-setting memo circulated to a group that included donors and friendly groups last Tuesday.
He reminded them that the committee “has spent more than $6 million to fundamentally transform a traditionally Republican electorate, turn out low-propensity voters, channel the unprecedented grassroots energy, and communicate with swing voters.”
But the Tuesday vote comes after the race basked for months in the national spotlight, during which Ossoff raised over $23 million and every DCCC briefing to progressive groups and donors included an update on the committee’s activities in the race.
Party consultants have already been invited to a Sena-led briefing on Wednesday after the election, part of an effort by top Democratic operatives to try and calm nerves about the implications for 2018 of a potential Ossoff loss. They’ve already pointed to previous examples of special elections failing to serve as midterm bellwethers, and circulated analyses like one from the Cook Political Report noting that 71 GOP-held districts are expected to be even more competitive than Georgia’s Sixth, when Democrats only need to win 24.
“I remember in 2011, Kathy Hochul won a special election in an historically Republican district in Buffalo and everyone prophesied that the Democrats were on track to recapture the House majority,” said former DCCC Chairman Steve Israel. “Winning or losing a special election doesn’t get to the overriding challenge Democrats have, which is a map that the Republicans have rigged, and redistricting.”
Still, no House race in recent memory has been as closely scrutinized as the one in Georgia, both because of the unprecedented spending and Trump’s shadow. With Democrats hoping to use the president’s weak approval ratings as fuel to power them back to a House majority, the affluent suburban district has become a testing ground for both parties, a recognition that is resembles the kind of electorate that could end up swinging control of the House in 2018.
Democratic leaders in Washington believe a win would not only re-invigorate their own grassroots, but would likely lead to a round of Republican soul-searching and finger-pointing. Against that backdrop, they expect a handful of top recruits to step into the fray against vulnerable GOP House members.
“Victory is always much easier to embrace than defeat, so Jon’s victory on the 20th will make a lot of longer-shot races more viable,” said Stacey Abrams, the Democratic Georgia House minority leader who is now running for governor — another long-shot race itself. But “if he’s not successful, it’s a question of margin, and the most important conversation is going to be to look at the landscape and focus on how Jon Ossoff, a political neophyte, made this very competitive.”
Democrats have found that an anti-Trump message only carries them so far. Ossoff initially gained attention as a potential warrior against the administration, but now rarely talks about the White House. Instead, he’s pushing a message about reforming Washington. While GOP polling shows that Trump’s approval rating has dropped within the district, Ossoff has had to expand his focus to try and win over moderates and some Republicans — the day after the DCCC finished conducting local focus groups that revealed moderates’ complicated views of Trump, Ossoff’s campaign stopped going after the president in its paid ads.
Trump’s political operation has, in fact, given Ossoff more trouble than Democrats anticipated: when the pro-Trump America First Policies group first jumped into the race with advertising, it was viewed as a turning point by DCCC operatives, who saw the move as evidence that an entirely new piece of the GOP infrastructure was swooping in to save the seat for Handel. The DCCC then injected more money into the race than initially planned and intensified its direct mail get-out-the-vote program.
With the race turning away from its early framing as a referendum on Trump, Democratic operatives have instead looked closely at Ossoff’s campaign for clues about messaging that other Democrats might emulate next year. That’s been a sensitive exercise: Democratic establishment strategists fret that the party’s liberal insurgent wing will take an Ossoff loss as evidence that candidates need a clearer, Bernie Sanders-like message of economic populism, while progressive leaders worry an Ossoff win could encourage the party to recruit more moderates.
The race’s potential to exacerbate internal divisions is one reason the DCCC has sought to remind its allies over and over about the district’s conservative leanings. But it has also been bringing in consultants from all over the party to talk to its staff about how to communicate with various constituencies that will be central to its 2018 efforts — among them Sanders strategists including operatives from the Devine Mulvey Longabaugh firm that handled his media and campaign manager Jeff Weaver, who have been through the building to talk about millennial targeting and economic messaging.
For now, in the closing stretch of the race, the party is ratcheting up the level of engagement. They’re directing busloads of volunteers from all over the country and scores of campaign pros from Washington in the final days to help turn out voters. House and gubernatorial candidates have joined state Democratic parties from as far away as Oregon in asking for volunteers to join the phone banking program for the special election. This month, the DCCC even urged sitting members of Congress to throw cash at Ossoff, leading to a deluge of donations from his potential colleagues for the last week of the race to the tune of over $55,000, according to federal filings.
“This is a laboratory. In order to win the House back we have to win in districts that are gerrymandered for Republicans, so [special elections like this one are] laboratories for us to figure out what’s the best way to mobilize this vote,” said Democratic National Committee Associate Chair Jaime Harrison, conceding that a loss in Georgia would expose the reality that the party has not yet reached the point of being fully prepared to take back the House.
“It’s why you have preseason before you start the NBA regular season,” he added. “We still need to work out all the kinks and figure out the best way forward. I do know we can’t continue to do some of the same things we’ve been doing.”