Democrats are on the precipice of turning a former GOP stronghold into their first major victory of the Donald Trump era, a win that would deliver a huge morale boost to the party when it needed it most.
But now comes the difficult part: Can they sustain their momentum enough to actually win?
Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff nearly did win a special U.S. House of Representatives election in Georgia on Tuesday, coming close to a shock victory in a race viewed as a referendum on President Trump’s popularity. The 30-year-old former congressional aide finished with 48 percent of the vote, 2 points shy of the 50 percent he needed to win the race outright.
He now faces the second-place finisher, Republican candidate Karen Handel, in a June runoff, in what will be a closely watched second phase of a contest already that’s receiving obsessive national attention.
The test for anti-Trump Democrats and liberals is whether they can sustain or even increase their level of support for Ossoff the next two months – even after this week’s letdown and the coming counterattack from Republicans.
Ultimately, the best driver of enthusiasm right now is letting Trump be Trump.
Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist
It’s a question the larger Democratic Party will have to answer not just in Georgia but also over the course of the next 18 months as the party prepares for a midterm election it hopes will be defined by the passion and energy of its liberal base.
“I’m looking forward to what will be a spirited debate,” Ossoff said during an interview Wednesday on MSNBC. “I’m looking forward to continuing to work with a team of thousands of folks who are giving so much to push us forward to try to get some fresh leadership in Washington. I think we’re going to win June 20.”
Republicans say a Democrat performing well in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District shouldn’t be a surprise, given that Trump and Hillary Clinton nearly split its vote during the presidential election last fall even as former Republican Rep. Tom Price – now Trump’s secretary of health and human services – won it by more than 20 points.
“This is a district that was very close on the presidential level last cycle,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday during his news briefing. “And the Democrats went all-in on this.”
GOP leaders are confident that in any case, they’ll again stop the Democrat from winning in two months.
Ossoff needs only 2 additional percentage points to win the race, but in a traditional Republican district, winning over those final voters might be the hardest part. Eleven Republican candidates combined to receive a majority of the vote in the so-called “jungle primary,” coming in at 51 percent. Ossoff and four other little-known Democratic candidates combined to receive 49 percent of the vote.
$8.3 million The amount Jon Ossoff raised in two months for his Democratic campaign for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District
And Ossoff reached his mark only after a nationwide band of liberal donors and activists dead-set on handing Trump a defeat turned the Democrat’s campaign from a little-noticed long shot into the face of liberal opposition to the president.
They helped the candidate raise an astounding $8.3 million in just two months while building a 2,000-person volunteer army that operatives say equaled or surpassed any they had ever seen support a House candidate.
But will those volunteers stick around until June, and will the money keep coming?
Veteran Democratic strategists say they’re not worried about sustaining the enthusiasm: A movement that began because of Trump is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.
“Ultimately, the best driver of enthusiasm right now is letting Trump be Trump,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist. “So unless Trump decides to abandon who he is, and abandon his agenda, it’s hard to see the enthusiasm waning.”
The Democratic establishment must also decide whether it will continue to push for victory. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political arm of House Democrats, paid for field staff for Ossoff early in the race, and made a late, large investment in radio and mail designed to increase Democratic turnout.
But its investment was meager compared with the money spent by Republicans and their allies, who poured millions into the race in TV and digital ads. The commitment from the GOP is unlikely to tail off, either, because the party’s leaders believed that Ossoff’s best chance to win was this month, not in June, when the GOP can unite behind one candidate. They’re unlikely to back off on Ossoff now, intent on finishing him off.
“I think Jon Ossoff’s best chance to win is on April 18,” Kevin Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Campaign, said in a recent interview. “Because after that day, on the 19th . . . we will have one candidate, not 15. Which will be really nice for us, because when we have 15 candidates, our base’s attention gets split.”
The outcome of Tuesday’s election was remarkably similar to last week’s tally in another special House election, in Kansas: The Democratic candidate dramatically over-performed November’s results but still fell short of victory.
But Democrats say that even without victories, the fact they’re even competing in these races is proof they are poised for big things in next year’s midterm elections, which will include easier districts than the ones they’re currently fighting over.
“So many pundits and, frankly, activists obsess purely over wins and losses, but I’ve said from day one that what matters most is the final margin,” said David Nir, political director for Daily Kos, a liberal blog that helped direct attention to Ossoff and raised over $1 million for him. “The current playing field — this handful of special elections — is on a tiny, unrepresentative patch of the country that is far more Republican than the nation as a whole.”