The Democratic establishment is on the verge of having its best one-week performance in a very long time.
Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam captured the Democratic gubernatorial nomination Tuesday with the full force of the Old Dominion’s party machine behind him, winning by a larger-than-expected margin of almost 12 percentage points over a one-term congressman who ran as an insurgent in the mold of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
On Tuesday outside Atlanta, Democrats have a very real chance to win a special election for a House seat that has been safely in Republican hands since 1978, using first-time candidate Jon Ossoff, 30, who has assiduously stuck to an offend-no-voter strategy drawn up by leading party operatives in Washington.
If Ossoff can pull off this victory in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, it will deliver a much-needed positive jolt to the party apparatus. For weeks, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been under siege for focusing heavily on this seat in the Atlanta suburbs while paying far less attention to three other special elections in districts that are more rural, less educated and went for President Trump by large margins in last year’s election.
An Ossoff win, just a week after Northam’s convincing primary victory, would signal that the Democratic establishment is still alive and kicking.
In a memo last week, Dan Sena, the DCCC’s executive director, went back and forth between tamping down expectations of victory and going to great lengths to take credit for the win if it happens. Sena explained that the previous occupant of the 6th District seat, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, won his past six elections by an average of 33 percentage points.
And yet Republican Karen Handel, a perennial candidate with close alliances to the Price family, cannot break above the mid- to high 40s in head-to-head polling vs. Ossoff.
“The DCCC has spent more than $6 million to fundamentally transform a traditionally Republican electorate, turn out low-propensity voters, channel the unprecedented grass roots energy, and communicate with swing voters,” Sena wrote of an effort that has included more than $5 million on TV ads.
An Ossoff victory — far from a sure thing — would also signal that the GOP, despite controlling all of Washington, remains more beset by ideological divisions and personality disputes than the Democratic Party. Neither party appears particularly unified, but Democrats have been bracing for anti-establishment candidates’ knocking off party veterans in the same manner that Republicans have endured in recent years.
After all, in Virginia, Northam was the gubernatorial candidate who was supposed to be sweating out a tight race against former congressman Tom Perriello for the Democratic nomination, as Republican Ed Gillespie prepped himself for the general election, his primary win seemingly a formality. Instead, Gillespie barely hung on against Trump backer Corey Stewart, who positioned himself as an anti-establishment candidate willing to say controversial things. Gillespie had much greater financial support and the backing of almost every prominent Virginia Republican.
The narrowness of his victory sent shock waves through Republican operatives in Washington.
In the Senate, where Democrats are defending three times as many seats as Republicans are next year, Republicans were supposed to be looking to make big gains over their current 52-to-48 edge. Instead, Stewart’s unlikely surge recalled other primary battles this decade when Republicans chose the more ideologically confrontational candidates — only to lose what could have been easy victories in the general election.
This would be an amazing turnaround for establishment Democrats, who have spent the past year under rhetorical assault from some of their liberal activists and facing open mockery from Trump and Republicans over their 2016 performance.
Last July, just days before the start of the Democratic National Convention to formally nominate Hillary Clinton, hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee staff suggested that some senior aides favored Clinton over Sanders during the primary. The episode prompted the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), to resign.
Clinton then lost in stunning fashion to Trump in November, as Democrats in the House and Senate fell far short of expected gains after they ran their campaigns hitched almost entirely to Clinton’s messaging, which focused heavily on negative ads about Trump’s personal behavior.
For Sanders’s supporters, the results prompted a lot of we-told-you-so commentary, suggesting that Clinton’s approach had lacked a robust economic agenda that appealed to liberals and to working-class voters in former manufacturing hubs. Those anti-Trump activists have bemoaned the DCCC’s decisions this spring to not invest heavily in special elections in Kansas, Montana and South Carolina, but to focus on the Georgia race, instead.
If Ossoff does not break through, the failure will be seen by the Sanders wing as a brutal defeat for the party establishment, further fanning the flames of the internal war over decision-making.
That’s what makes the Georgia special election so important: It is being used as the case study for the Democratic establishment’s 2018 focus.
Never having run a race before, Ossoff is not the ideal candidate. He has adopted a neutral, almost post-partisan tone in what he says on the campaign trail, aware that the suburban district split almost evenly in last year’s presidential race.
“National security should not be about political party. It should be about the interests of the country,” he said at a debate this month.
Other Democratic candidates in special elections have been more fiery and closer aligned with Sanders. But they were in districts that were part of the Democratic past, not its future, according to party insiders, so they did not get the same level of attention.
This Georgia congressional seat is one of three dozen districts held by Republicans that either Clinton won or Trump won by less than four percentage points, making them the focus of the 2018 campaign to win the 24 seats the Democrats need to secure the House majority.
Democrats from the establishment wing are not guaranteeing victory here, but they see it as a real chance and a potential validation of their strategy after nearly a year of being knocked back on their heels.
“What should have been an easy Republican hold has become the most high-profile and expensive congressional election in history,” Sena wrote.