High-stakes Georgia race puts pressure on Dems

Democrats are under pressure to pull off a win in Georgia's open House race, seeing it as their last chance to use a special election as proof of a brewing backlash against President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE.

The party has pointed to closer-than-expected races in what had been reliably red districts as evidence of rising voter enthusiasm on the left. But Democrats have so far failed to convert that energy into an actual win in this year's special elections.

Liberal grassroots groups are frustrated by national Democrats' decision to spend comparatively small amounts in Kansas and Montana races, opting instead to pour money into the Georgia election — now the most expensive House race in history. That ramps up the pressure even higher for Democrat Jon Ossoff to pull off a win on June 20.

“We need this win in Georgia 6, because if Jon Ossoff is victorious, it will create the amount of momentum that we will need to go into the midterm elections,” said Georgia Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson, although he also said what Ossoff has already done is “remarkable.”

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He added that a victory in the suburban Atlanta district will create a national model that the party can use to flip more seats in the 2018 midterms.

With less than three weeks until the highly anticipated Georgia race, the campaigns and outside groups are showing no signs of slowing down as polls show Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel in a statistical dead heat.

The Georgia district is seen as Democrats’ best opportunity to flip a district that has previously elected solidly Republican representatives such as former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Trump’s razor-thin victory in the suburban Atlanta district last year — he won the district by less than 2 percent — fuels Democrats’ hope that they can use the anti-Trump headwinds to propel them to victory in the seat last held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price (R).

The race comes after Democrats fell in a Kansas special election, then in a closer-than-expected race in Montana that followed the GOP nominee’s physical altercation with a reporter.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has taken heat from some within the party for its reluctance to spend money in races besides the one in Georgia, something its GOP counterpart has sought to play up. But the DCCC has defended its strategy, pointing to polling and data that aides say accurately reflected the Montana loss.

Based on the positive signs in Kansas and Georgia’s primary, “Democrats are gaining ground at a rate that will put a large number of seats in play during the 2018 midterms,” DCCC spokeswoman Meredith Kelly wrote in a memo after Montana’s race.

Some Democrats believe the DCCC’s strategy has been smart, given that the party will likely need huge amounts of money to compete in the large number of expected swing districts in 2018.

“If that’s the case and the DCCC is spending millions of dollars in seats that aren’t really winnable based on the information that they have, then that means come next November, they’re not going to have the money to support candidacies against legitimately vulnerable Republicans,” said Bill Burton, who worked at the DCCC in 2006.

But others argue that the party can’t ignore traditionally red districts in places like Montana and Kansas and needs to spend time and resources to develop a large field operation in Republican areas with the hopes of developing them for the future.

“You can’t ignore these parts of the country in between elections and only invest in a couple of races,” said Nomiki Konst, a former Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Energy: Oil giants meet with Trump at White House | Interior extends tenure of controversial land management chief | Oil prices tick up on hopes of Russia-Saudi deal Oil giants meet at White House amid talk of buying strategic reserves The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden struggles to stay in the spotlight MORE delegate serving on the DNC unity commission. “When you talk about the issues that affect working people and you do that in between races, they’re going to be attracted to your message.”

The closer-than-expected special election losses have pressure on Ossoff to finally deliver a win for the party this year.

Democrats are outspending Republicans in the runoff, with the DCCC spending another $3.6 million to prop up Ossoff, according to an Atlanta Journal Constitution analysis from late May. Recent polls show Ossoff slightly edging out Handel, but still within the margin of error.

Despite the polls, Republicans say they’re going into Georgia’s runoff with cautious optimism. They acknowledge the high energy for their opponent, but note that Handel, a former Georgia secretary of State, quickly consolidated GOP support after the all-party primary and has since raised the resources to compete on the same level as Ossoff.

“The energy level is still probably slightly stronger for Ossoff because of the anti-Donald Trump sentiment, but she has organized the Republicans and has the ground game now and has the resources to define Ossoff properly,” said Heath Garrett, former chief of staff to Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonLoeffler traded .4M in stocks as Congress responded to coronavirus pandemic Loeffler under fire for stock trades amid coronavirus outbreak The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden riding wave of momentum after stunning Super Tuesday MORE (R-Ga.).

To counter the deluge of money and TV ads, Republicans have launched a series of attacks on Ossoff in the final weeks. They’ve continued to question his national security credentials from when he served as a congressional aide. And a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership sought to tie him to comedian Kathy Griffin, who earned major backlash for posing with a photo of a decapitated head resembling Trump.

A pro-Trump outside group, America First Policies, is poised to debut a $1.6 million TV ad campaign piggybacking on the attacks on Ossoff’s national security qualifications.

And the always-unpredictable Trump could shake up the race. Trump tweeted his support for Handel after she advanced to the runoff and he traveled to Atlanta to headline an April fundraiser that brought in $750,000 for her campaign, although he hasn’t weighed in lately.

“The big question for Karen Handel: Where is Donald Trump and what is he doing the last two weeks of this race?” Garrett said. “At the end of the day, whether you like it or not, he’s part of the definition of this race.”

The race still comes down to turnout, and if the first few days of early voting and registration are any indication, the electorate could be larger than in April’s primary.

As of Wednesday, almost 8,000 people registered to vote since a federal judge ruled to reopen voter registration. And since early voting began on Tuesday, there are already huge numbers showing up to the polls, particularly in DeKalb County, a Democratic-trending part of the district, which is a promising early sign for Ossoff.

But strategists from both parties know it’ll still come down to both campaigns getting their voters to the ballot box on Election Day. Until then, the race will continue to be a nail-biter.

“I think it’s going to be fought out all the way until June 20,” Garrett said.