Ground Game

Democrats are marching in the streets, but losing at the ballot box. What gives?

Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District.
Kevin D. Liles/The New York Times
The chances for Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, to win a two-person race in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District are fewer than the open field he faced this week.

Last year, Democrats lost so many elections that they reached their lowest point of power in nearly a century.

Since November, three things have happened. Liberal activists have repeatedly protested in large numbers unlike anything we’ve seen in at least half a century. A new Democratic National Committee chairman was elected on a platform of competing in all 50 states. And, third, Democrats continue to not win elections.

Tuesday’s special election in Georgia only perpetuated the heartbreak and hand-wringing for Democrats. Their preferred candidate failed to get 50 percent of the vote and win the seat outright in a preliminary race that included nearly 20 candidates. Now Democrat Jon Ossoff will face Republican Karen Handel in a June 20 runoff, and political prognosticators say his chances of winning are significantly slimmer in a two-person race.


This Georgia special election comes days after Democratic activists organized yet another march, this one in more than 100 communities, demanding that President Trump release his tax returns (He didn’t).

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Soon after the Georgia results arrived, Democrats began to grumble amongst themselves. For example, they asked, did Ossoff spend the $8.3 million he raised effectively? Most of it was spent on television advertisements in a market where most viewers don’t live in the district.

But there were deeper questions, such as what happened to the DNC’s 50-state strategy? And is the party harnessing the energy on the ground in the right way?

“Would I prefer a Democrat protesting in the streets or organizing and knocking on doors? I would prefer them organizing and knocking on doors,” said Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist. “Protesting might give someone a psychological lift, but organizing gets wins.”

For his part, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said in a statement that the results in Georgia “are further proof that the grass-roots energy we’re seeing across the country can translate to electoral progress in every zip code.”


Indeed, those on the ground and involved in the Georgia race say the ground organization wasn’t really the problem. They argue there was probably nothing Ossoff could have done to get from his 48 percent showing to over 50 percent.

“This was the biggest ground game and excitement I have ever seen in Georgia outside of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political science professor in Atlanta. “It was getting to the point where Democratic voters were getting fed up with all of the outreach on the phone and the knocking on doors.”

The party’s handwringing is compounded by another electoral loss. Last week, Democrats failed to win another special election for the US House, this one in Kansas. The Wichita-based district has traditionally elected Republicans, and it voted for Trump by nearly 30 points in November.

At least in this case, Democrats saw some hope: Their candidate performed nearly 13 points better than Hillary Clinton did in that district last year. In Georgia’s Sixth District, which is north of Atlanta, Ossoff performed better than Clinton by a single percentage point.

David Nir, political director for the liberal website Daily Kos, said activists both marched and helped Ossoff. Daily Kos readers, he said, funneled $400,000 to boost Ossoff in a single week.


“I don’t see how anyone can question the effectiveness of Ossoff’s field program when every other election in this district (except one—Trump’s) has always resulted in a landslide for Republicans,” Nir said.

It’s important to not read too much into these special election results. They were Democrats in traditionally Republican districts.

What’s more, Democrats need to pick up 24 seats to take the US House next year. Historically an incumbent president loses 23 seats in their first midterm. The Kansas and Georgia seats? They aren’t on anyone’s list of the potential 24 seats that could flip party hands in 2018.

But we’re in unprecedented times. No president in the history of polling has had such low approval ratings this early in his term. That Democrats over-performed in these districts, even if they did not win, is not insignificant.

“They haven’t done that yet, but if they can make red districts competitive it may mean they can make purple districts blue next year,” said Mo Elleithee, a former DNC spokesman and now head of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics. “These marches, instead of taking away from specific campaigns, may end up sustaining energy for the next year and a half.”

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp