Democrats have taken heart from three recent special elections, where a troika of candidates fell short of victory but still racked up votes in longtime Republicans districts.
But another moral victory won’t cut it next time.
In the wake of a defeat in Montana, Democrats are facing real pressure to win a showdown next month in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. The race is setting up to be the party’s last opportunity to score the kind of early electoral victory that its fervent base craves, and it will be a major test of whether progressive energy can translate into actual votes as Democrats seek to expand their midterm map.
It’s not just that the upstart Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, nearly won the race outright during the first round of voting. The House Democrats’ political arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has also spent millions of dollars in a sustained push for victory – a much larger investment than it has made elsewhere.
Many in the party still caution the seat is more Republican than the kind they need to win a House majority next year. But they acknowledge failure to win there would be a missed opportunity to send shockwaves through the Republican Party.
"If the voters in Tom Price and Newt Gingrich's congressional seat will no longer vote for the GOP, that might put a stake through the heart of Trump's agenda in Congress,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former top DCCC official. “Even the competitiveness in a suburban, Republican district like this indicates a big, lasting shift among suburban voters who are abandoning Trump's GOP.”
Republicans are also plainly nervous, worried that the party’s candidate, Karen Handel, will blow a race many once considered a sure victory.
It’s not the first time GOP operatives have been worried about a once-safe seat this year: They breathed a sigh of relief when the party won a tighter-than-expected contest in Montana. In April, a GOP candidate in Kansas’s 4th Congressional District won only after a late intervention from the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Democrats point out that in each of those races, their candidate did much better than the party’s nominee in the 2016 general election – a sign that the political environment has shifted against President Donald Trump and the GOP majority.
But the competitiveness has also prompted criticism that if the party, led by the DCCC, had only done more, the candidates could have actually won. The DCCC and allied outside groups have been heavily outspent by the NRCC and a Republican Super PAC.
Democratic strategists say an Ossoff victory would silence that criticism, eliminating what one of them said was “inside-the-beltway” pressure for the party to win a special election.
“It does suck for the DCCC to have this string of special elections so deep in Republican territory,” said the Democratic strategist. “It is unfortunate for them, because you’d like to bring a home a win.”
Republican operatives argue that Democrats will face enormous pressure to pull off a win in Georgia given Trump's high unfavorable ratings, massive Democratic spending on behalf of Ossoff (the Republicans are doing the same for Handel) and the genuinely competitive nature of the district in the era of Trump.
"You couldn't draw up a better political environment for them than right now and they're in danger of going o-fer," said Robert Blizzard, a Republican strategist working on several 2018 races.
Another Republican operative involved in the midterms noted that Democrats have been much more heavily invested, for longer, in Georgia than they ever were in Montana, a place that Trump won by double digits. But by Election Day on Thursday, there was still the expectation that the Democrats were going to make Montana close.
In Georgia, the expectations are dramatically higher for Democrats, especially given the suburban, more moderate make-up of Georgia Six--the kind of place Democrats would need to win in order to take back the House.
"That puts a lot more pressure on them to actually deliver in Georgia, where they've been spending a lot more significant, bigger amounts for a much longer time," the GOP operative said. "If they lose in Georgia, there's going to be some questions that will be raised, which are, how can you lose when you have an incompetent White House that is daily giving the base of the Democrats ammunition?"
"You have a president at historic lows in favorable-unfavorable [ratings], you've got a Democrat party that's very much motivated and raising money," the operative continued. "If they can't turn those things into electoral success when the turnout is always about the base...what does that foreshadow for the midterms?"
In the short term, Republicans say, a Democratic loss in Georgia would slow liberal momentum and call into question the idea that the progressive base is energized in a meaningful, electorally significant way. It would also undercut the idea that Democrats are competitive in districts Trump won.
"They're under tremendous pressure," said Chip Lake, a veteran Georgia-based GOP strategist. "If they go 0-3, they're going to spin it, say these were Republican districts. In many respects that might be right, but it certainly dispels the argument they're making that 2018 will be a bloodbath for Republicans."
But at the same time, Republican strategists caution that GOP wins in these special elections—in Montana or even possibly in Georgia—should not be cause for relief for the GOP. The volatile nature of Donald Trump's White House, coupled with the Republican Congress's struggles to notch legislative wins so far, are combining to create a hugely uncertain environment that have top Republicans wary.
"We're going to continue to be in a challenging political environment, an unpredictable environment—I don't see that changing this year," said the GOP operative. "Just because there are tactical victories on the electoral field, it doesn't translate into November 2018, it doesn't translate into anything. Republicans can't be like, 'whew,' because there's just too many unknown factors."
Lake added that the race in Georgia is the most nationalized contest he's ever seen. Handel is running a good race, he said, but added that national headwinds have been taking a toll (he said that Trump's generally positive foreign trip, however, could help Handel).
"That being said, yes, I think we're nervous about it, with all the external factors that exist, we'd be foolish not to be nervous," he said. "We're taking this very seriously. The whole country is, too."