The most talked-about election of 2017 will take place Tuesday, when voters in Georgia’s 6th congressional district go to the polls to choose between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel in a special election to succeed Tom Price, a Republican who stepped down from the seat earlier this year in order to become the Trump administration’s Secretary of Health and Human Services.
The race has generated an off-the-charts level of media attention and money. Early voting data also indicate Tuesday’s race will generate off-the-charts turnout. A sizable chunk of that enthusiasm has come from Democrats, who are hoping to ride anti-Trump backlash to a win in a Republican stronghold. Mitt Romney carried the district by 23 percentage points in 2012, and Price won it by 23 points in 2016. But the district drew the attention of progressive activists, mainly because of one eye-popping data point: Donald Trump carried it by only 1 percentage point in 2016. The 22-point swing to the left at the presidential level was one of the biggest in the country.
Daily Kos, which was founded in 2002 and rose to prominence as a home for progressive activism during the George W. Bush years, has many components. One of the original pillars of the “netroots” community more than a decade ago, the site has outgrown its identity as a blog.
The site still has no shortage of liberal opinion writing. But it also has an increasingly influential activist arm that raises money for progressive candidates. At the center of both its published content and its activism is a data operation that has taken on some of the most ambitious projects in the industry. In 2008, the site started compiling presidential election results by congressional district. This year, it has added presidential election results by state legislative district.
When Nir took note of the massive leftward swing taking place in the 6th district at the presidential election, he saw an opportunity. But said he initially considered the race a “longshot,” given the district’s decades-long Republican lean. Nevertheless, Nir and his colleagues studied the race, and eventually threw their support behind Ossoff, a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker and former Congressional aide.
At the time, the race had drawn little attention outside of the district, located in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. But the Daily Kos endorsement helped launch Ossoff, making him the clear frontrunner among Democrats, and opening the door for a record fundraising haul that has exceeded $23 million, $1.6 million of which came directly from Daily Kos. The massive haul Daily Kos has delivered for Ossoff is part of a pattern. The site has already reaised $3.8 million in 2017, after raising a total of $3.6 million in 2015 and 2016 combined.
“At the outset, our chief goal was simply to ensure that a Democrat — who wound up being Ossoff — would make the runoff. This district, after all, went for Mitt Romney by 23 points, so the idea that it would become so hotly contested wasn’t even something we entertained,” Nir told Heavy via email last week. “Indeed, as we said of this race in our endorsement announcement, ‘It’ll be extremely difficult, though, since old habits die hard, and folks in this district are used to voting for Republicans downballot.’ But, we went on to note, ‘Trump makes politics very unpredictable, and we have to be prepared to capitalize on any backlash he might stoke — and boy is he good at that.’ And that’s exactly what happened, because there’s no question that Trump has energized progressives beyond anything we’ve ever seen.”
Ossoff took 48 percent of the vote in the district’s 18-candidate primary April 18, falling short of a majority that would have given him the seat outright, but finishing far ahead of any of the other candidates in the field. Handel, a former Georgia Secretary of State, finished second, with about 20 percent of the vote. That set up the runoff, which takes place Tuesday.
Ossoff’s performance in the primary, and the narrow lead he has in the average of recent polls in the race, are indicative of a political climate that has a strong Democratic lean. Democrats have consistently performed better in special elections this year than Hillary Clinton performed in last year’s presidential election, and far better than past Democratic candidates have performed in given districts. Impressive as their showings have been though, Democrats have yet to win a U.S. House seat that had been previously held by Republicans. That could change Tuesday. If it does, it will be the strongest sign yet that Democrats have a real shot to take back the House of Representatives next fall.
With the GA-06 race approaching, Heavy sent Nir 10 questions via email about the Georgia race, and the state of progressive politics in the Trump era. A transcript of the exchange is below.
10 Questions for David Nir About the Georgia Election & Progressive Politics in the Age of Trump
Heavy: Daily Kos has been a pretty big part of progressive politics since George W. Bush’s first term. But it seems to have evolved quite a bit over the past several years. There seems to be a lot more data analysis than there was a few years back. And there’s a pretty potent activist arm that helped launch Jon Ossoff’s campaign. To what extent are things different now than they were five or 10 years ago?
David Nir: Daily Kos has always been data-driven—there’s no other way to be a member in good standing of the reality-based community. Indeed, Daily Kos Elections (under our previous name, the Swing State Project) was the first organization to calculate the 2008 presidential election results for all 435 congressional districts. Numbers are our lifeblood.
The biggest difference for us compared to five or 10 years ago is simply size: Our staff and community have both grown enormously. That enables us to do things we never dreamed of doing. When you can send an email to 3 million people at once saying, “This is an excellent candidate in a potentially winnable race, so please donate,” a lot of amazing things can happen.
Heavy: Different people have different takes on exactly how and why this happened, but there’s no denying that Democrats took an electoral beating during the Obama years everywhere from the U.S. House and Senate to governors’ mansions and state legislatures. There’s a lot of rebuilding to do. How do you explain those down-ballot losses? And to what extent do you think Donald Trump’s presidency will be good for Democrats’ rebuilding efforts?
Nir: For the eight years of Obama’s presidency, Democrats focused a great deal on promoting his agenda and getting him re-elected. Additionally, the GOP-engineered gerrymandering of both the U.S. House and of state legislatures nationwide after the 2010 Republican wave made electoral success in many of these down-ballot races even more challenging.
Donald Trump’s presidency has already been good for Democrats’ rebuilding efforts. Candidate recruitment for state legislatures and Congress is going extremely well, Democrats are overperfomlng in most of the special elections that have been held since Trump’s election, and fundraising for Democrats and for progressive organizations is incredibly strong. Already this year, Daily Kos has raised as much money for Democratic candidates as we did in all of 2016—a presidential election year.
Heavy: There are a handful of signs right now that the political climate is very favorable to Democrats. It seems like the best evidence for that is Democratic candidates performing far better in special elections than you’d expect them to in a neutral environment. But to what extent do the Democrats need to put a win on the board in Georgia? How much of a letdown would it be — to Democratic voters, donors, future candidates, you name it — for Ossoff to come up short? How big of a deal is it if he wins?
Nir: Jon Ossoff already performed better than any Democrat in that district ever has when he came in first in the primary, joining over a dozen other Democrats this year who have performed better in their special elections than Clinton did in their districts last fall. We certainly hope Ossoff wins, but the enthusiasm, fundraising totals, and general progressive activism surrounding his candidacy are great news for Democrats running at all levels of the ballot this cycle.
Ossoff’s success so far should have Republicans frightened, because this race should never have been competitive in the first place. And if Ossoff wins, Republicans should be petrified. Republicans can’t afford to lose red districts like this one and hold onto their power in federal and state governments.
Heavy: It seems like one reason Georgia’s sixth district is so intriguing to people is that it’s a very good representation of the type of place Democrats are better off now than they were a couple election cycles ago: It’s in the suburbs of a major city in the Sunbelt. It’s a lot more racially diverse than it was a decade ago. And it’s home to a disproportionate percentage of white voters with a college degree. There’s been a lot of good analysis of this type of district being at the center of Democrats’ efforts to retake the House. But are there enough of those types of districts for the Democrats to count on, or do they also need to play aggressively in some of the districts that have slipped away from them over the past few cycles? Is it possible to do both, or do the Democrats need to pick one strategy or the other?
Nir: After last fall’s elections, Daily Kos identified 25 districts that moved most strongly to the left at the presidential level since 2012. Georgia’s 6th District was one of the tops among them. Many of these and other districts that have shifted away from Republicans over the past four or more years are in the sort of suburbs you describe, but the districts that are becoming more winnable for Democrats are literally and figuratively all over the map. By ensuring that strong candidates are running in all of these increasingly competitive seats, Democrats have a shot of flipping not only the U.S. House but also many state legislative chambers.
Heavy: McClatchy published a good piece recently that examined, among other things, the relationship between Daily Kos Elections and Democratic Party-backed organizations like the DCCC. I’d imagine there are many areas in which Daily Kos and Democratic operatives are completely aligned, and maybe some in which your goals differ. How do you view your mission relative to theirs?
Nir: Daily Kos works to elect more and better Democrats not only to the U.S. House, but at all levels of the ballot. We select the candidates we endorse based on a variety of criteria, including data demonstrating that these districts are winnable and the candidates’ capacity to energize the Daily Kos community. The support we provide to candidates in most cases includes our public endorsement, the engagement of our online community with the race, volunteer activation, and fundraising.
As we noted to McClatchy, one big difference between us and the DCCC is that we are able to embrace much longer-shot races. We always explain the odds to our community, and while no one likes losing, we aren’t afraid to. Indeed, the Ossoff race began life as a long shot, but we didn’t hesitate to embrace it—and in so doing, we paved the way for others (including the DCCC) to join in.
Heavy: Broad question that you can probably answer in a number of different ways: Has Bernie Sanders been good for the Democratic Party?
Nir: Bernie Sanders has stimulated a lot of constructive discussion among members of the Democratic Party and progressives.
There’s no shortage these days of people yelling at each other on Twitter about politics. But it seems like there’s a community of election junkies and data junkies in which liberals and conservatives share a lot of mutual respect and even admiration. It seems like one of the few areas where people of differing political stripes can at least agree on a certain set of facts on which to center the debate and analysis. Two questions: Is that a fair assessment of that community? And can you name me a few conservative election junkies whose work you admire, or with whom you’re personally friendly?
If you’re going to embrace data and let it lead you where it leads you, then it’s easier to have a conversation with folks on the other side of the aisle no matter what you might personally believe. But it’s sad that most on the right have embraced Trump’s worldview where everything they don’t like is branded “fake news” and their own untrue claims become “alternative facts.” The world would be a better place if we were all data nerds.
Heavy: I know on some level, all elections are important. But guys like you — and organizations like Daily Kos — need to prioritize things, or you’ll be spread too thin to compete. I’m curious how you see the pecking order among races for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, governors’ mansions, state legislatures, and local municipal offices. (I noticed that DNC chairman Tom Perez tweeted about the Democratic candidate’s victory in a Board of Selectman special election in the town where I live in Connecticut.)
Nir: Winning at all levels of the ballot is crucial to the success of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. At the moment, though, we are focused most heavily on the U.S. House and state legislatures. Winning back the House in 2018—which looks increasingly possible—will provide a crucial check on Donald Trump and the Republican extremists who are hell-bent on taking this country in a deeply destructive and unpopular direction.
State legislatures, meanwhile, are also crucial, but for a different reason. Daily Kos has always been concerned about redistricting, and if we can flip legislative seats across the country, then Democrats will have a vital seat at the table after the 2020 census—and, importantly, will be able to block Republicans from gerrymandering themselves into artificially-inflated majorities and undercutting the voice and impact of voters of color for the decade to come.
Heavy: We’re less than six months into Trump’s presidency, and a handful of sitting Democratic lawmakers are already openly talking about impeachment. How do you see that playing out on the campaign trail in 2018? It seems like it could be a pretty complicated issue for Democratic candidates.
Nir: It’s virtually impossible to meaningfully analyze the speculated impact of hypothetical impeachment proceedings on elections almost a year and a half away. Democrats have plenty of elections to win long before impeachment can practically come into play.
Heavy: We can’t do an election-related Q&A without even talking about the next presidential cycle. So I’ll end with this: If you could bet on any candidate at even money, on whom would you bet to be the Democratic nominee in 2020? On the GOP side: I’m sure you’d take Trump over any other individual candidate. But would you take Trump over the rest of the field at even money?
Nir: One of the things we’re proudest of at Daily Kos Elections is our laser-focus on down-ballot races. While it goes without saying that we care deeply about the results of every presidential election, our expertise is on the races that so often get ignored: for Senate, House, governor, state legislature, mayor, and sometimes even deeper into the weeds. We’re incredibly heartened that, in the wake of Trump’s election, the progressive movement has started giving these contests the level of attention they truly deserve, and we’re delighted to help people learn more about these races.