Republicans are in the unenviable position Tuesday of trying to defend a seat they've held for nearly four decades. But Democrats have a lot on the line in Georgia's uber-hyped special election, too.
Tuesday's election to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price could be Democrats' best opportunity until the 2018 elections to demonstrate that their base's anti-Trumpmentum can be weaponized to kick Republicans out of office — maybe even to take back the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010.
And Democrats have put it all on the line to make that happen.
This is the first congressional election since Trump's win that Democrats have tried to win. They largely stayed out of a Kansas special election last week where the Democrat only lost by seven points, and they're not as focused on a May Montana special election.
But as soon as House Democrats in Washington caught wind that a 30-year-old Democrat with no legislative experience could be competitive in a seat once held by former House speaker Newt Gingrich, their campaign arm flooded the Atlanta-area race with cash and resources.
Democrat Jon Ossoff's eight-person get-out-the-vote-team exploded to 70. The Democratic National Committee invested time, money and staff. Progressive groups raised thousands and recruited hundreds of volunteers in the last few days.
“I've said that we need to elect Democrats from the school board to the Senate. And we're working on all types of races because we believe we can elect Democrats because our — the American people understand that our values are their values,” DNC Chair Tom Perez said on NPR on Monday, predicting a Democratic victory Tuesday.
Victory is a relative term here. Democrats are reeeally confident their guy will at least get the estimated 40-45 percent of the vote to get into a runoff with the other top vote-getter out of a messy field of 18 candidates. (Ossoff's main challenger appears to be former GOP secretary of state Karen Handel.)
Democrats say they've already achieved success just by the fact that I'm writing about this and you're reading this. And they're not wrong: Getting a virtual unknown with no legislative experience into a runoff in a district that went Republican up and down the ballot six months ago (Trump won by a point and a half and Price by 23 points) is a political feat few thought could be accomplished when Trump nominated Price in January.
If Ossoff performs as expected, the question for Democrats then becomes: was this a one-off performance or are Democrats shaping the strategy they need to try to take back the House of Representatives in 2018?
“There's no question that there is tremendous enthusiasm right now and that needs to be maintained," said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist with experience in House elections. “The enthusiasm Democrats and progressives have right now is the fuel behind any effort to put the House in play in 2018."
Up until this point, Democrats' reasons for celebrating special congressional elections in the era of Trump have happened despite them. Exactly a week ago, Republicans barely hung onto a Wichita-area congressional district seat that Trump won by nearly 27 points. Washington Democrats did little to nothing in that race.
Democrats have put much more on the line in Georgia. Their ability to work together since raw, post-election battles over the soul of the party will be put to the test.
Progressives, still stinging from feeling like the establishment lost a winnable presidency by not listening to them, say they're thrilled everyone's on the ground working together in Georgia. But they also feel like the party still hasn't figured out how to utilize its anti-Trump grass roots energy beyond asking them for money.
Key to Democrats' internal assessment of how well their campaign apparatus works on Tuesday will be voter turnout: How many black and Hispanic voters feel engaged and a need to vote AND actually do it? (Exit polls from the presidential election showed that despite Hispanic voters' absolutely despising Trump, they didn't show up to vote in any significantly higher numbers than 2012.)
Neil Sroka, spokesman for the progressive Democracy for America, said, “[Tuesday] is going to be an important test of: 'Are we able to increase voter turnout in a ruby-red district in Georgia just like we saw last week in Kansas?'”
There's an enthusiasm and willingness among Democrats' base that the party hasn't seen in a decade, strategists in both the establishment and progressive community said. And if Democrats can figure out a way to harness it, the payoff could be huge.
In 2018, Republicans will be defending 23 seats that Clinton won. If Democrats can net 24 seats, they would recapture the majority.
As recently as January, Price's district wasn't even really on the map for Democrats to pick up. If Ossoff wins, whether outright on Tuesday or in the June runoff, he'll be the first Democrat to represent this area in Congress since the 1970s.
“Even in our wildest dreams in August of last year, I don't think anyone thought that Tom Price's House district was up for grabs," Sroka said.
Price's seat is such a reach that Democrats arguably don't even need to win it to have a shot at the majority. House Democrats' campaign arm has singled out some 60 other district to target across the country.
So, yes, victory is relative for Democrats in Tuesday's special election. And Democrats would much rather be in their position than Republicans'. But they still have something — perhaps a lot — to prove with this one race.