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Jon Ossoff's challenge in Georgia: Can he sustain momentum?

Democratic candidate for Georgia's Sixth Congressional Seat Jon Ossoff talks with reporters at a campaign field office.
Democratic candidate for Georgia's Sixth Congressional Seat Jon Ossoff talks with reporters at a campaign field office. AP

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 House election in Georgia on Tuesday, coming within a few percentage points of a shock victory in a race that both parties view as a referendum on President Trump’s popularity.

He now faces Republican candidate Karen Handel, who finished second Tuesday, in a June run-off in the suburban Atlanta 6th Congressional District, in what will be a closely watched second phase of a contest already receiving near-obsessive national attention.

The test for progressive activists and, to a lesser extent, the Democratic Party establishment is whether they can sustain the same level of enthusiasm for Ossoff for an additional two months — especially after the emotional letdown of nearly winning Tuesday.

The 30-year-old Democrat only needs two additional percentage points to win the race, but in a traditional Republican district, winning over those final voters might be the hardest part. Although the total was spread across 11 different Republican candidates in Tuesday’s “jungle primary,” the GOP did receive 51 percent of the votes to the Democrats’ 49 percent.

And Ossoff reached his mark only after a nationwide band of liberal donors and activists who, dead-set on handing Trump a defeat, turned his 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 by 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 same level of 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 continues to push for victory. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political arm of House Democrats, paid for field staff for Ossoff early on in the race, and made a late, large investment in radio and mail designed to increase Democratic turnout.

But their investment was meager compared to 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.

“I think Jon Ossoff’s best chance to win is on April 18th,” said Kevin Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Campaign, 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 special election in Georgia was remarkably similar to last week’s tally in another special House election Kansas: the Democratic candidate dramatically overperformed November’s results, but still fell short of actual victory.

But Democrats say 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 first 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.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty