Jon Ossoff told about 150 of his supporters Wednesday night that they had a chance to start the electoral backlash to President Donald Trump.
Most of them hardly needed convincing from this Democratic congressional candidate – even if they live in the heart of a longtime Republican stronghold.
“This is the first chance in the country for us to make a statement about what we stand for,” said Ossoff, speaking in a Jewish temple in Sandy Springs, Georgia, a suburb north of Atlanta. “It’s the first chance in the country we have to make a statement that America can be strong and prosperous and secure without sacrificing our core values.”
To many Democrats, Ossoff’s candidacy – which has attracted the attention of liberal activists nationwide – is the first chance to show that Republicans are paying a price for Donald Trump’s presidency.
The 30-year-old is the most prominent Democrat running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, which this spring will have a special election to replace former Rep. Tom Price. The longtime Republican congressman in February became Trump’s secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, creating a vacancy in his old seat.
It will be the country’s first federal election since Trump took office.
At first glance, the district – which is overwhelmingly white, affluent and well-educated – looks like a poor spot for Democrats to make a comeback. Republican congressmen have represented it since 1979, and last year, Price won re-election by more than 20 points.
But the way Trump has altered both party’s electoral coalitions might have changed the calculus here and in other suburban House districts that have long voted Republican. The presidential nominee, who earned the presidency despite struggling with affluent Republican voters, won the district by less than 2 percentage points over Hillary Clinton last year.
Just four years earlier, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won it by more than 20 points.
The district’s dramatic shift, Ossoff explained Wednesday, convinced him a Democrat could finally win in here.
“We all saw how close, how shockingly close, the result of the presidential election was,” Ossoff said.
By most measures, he remains a long shot to win – a point even some Democrats, wary of over-inflating expectations – are quick to make.
He’s running in a field with 18 candidates, including four fellow Democrats, and analysts watching the race say he’s not even a guarantee to finish in first or second place on April 18. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote that day, the top two finishers will advance to a run-off held June 20.
But Republicans, watching Trump’s early low poll numbers as president, concede they can’t take the race for granted.
Just last week, a survey from the Pew Research Center found that only 38 percent of white, college-educated voters approved of the president’s job performance, evidence that Trump’s struggles with this demographic group have not improved since he took office.
“Republicans should be not complacent at all, especially in the age of Trump,” said Chip Lake, a Republican strategist in Georgia and former Price aide. “We don’t know what the age of Trump looks like yet, from an electoral perspective.”
Republicans, including Lake, are confident their party will eventually win. The GOP has 11 candidates running, more than double the Democrats’ four and a sign of the party’s confidence in winning the seat.
Among the GOP candidates are former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, Georgia state Sen. Judson Hill, and Bruce Levell, who was executive director of the Trump presidential campaign’s national diversity coalition.
Ossoff has become a darling of progressive activists across the country since announcing his intention to run for the seat. The former congressional aide who now runs a company that produces investigative documentary films has earned the endorsement of civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis and has already raised – according to his campaign – $1.85 million.
On Wednesday, he earned the endorsement of the End Citizens United, a progressive organization dedicated to overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed for corporate spending on political campaigns.
Tiffany Muller, executive director of End Citizens United, said the group endorsed Ossoff in part because they considered him a viable candidate.
“We have these really encouraging signs about how much money he has and how excited our grassroots members are,” Muller said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political arm of the House Democratic caucus, has also chipped in, planning to pay for nine staffers to help organize rank-and-file voters on the ground in the district.
The committee has also been in regular contact with Ossoff, and during an interview, the candidate himself praised its assistance.
But how much further the DCCC plans to help Ossoff – namely, by spending money on high-priced TV ads – remains to be seen.
Democrats remain concerned that even though Trump struggled in the district, he won’t be on the ballot in the special election. The district is still overwhelmingly populated by Republicans, and turnout among Democratic voters traditionally drops in non-presidential elections.
A spokeswoman for the ratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has been under pressure from progressive activists to help Ossoff’s candidacy, said the committee has taken the open-seat race “extremely seriously.”
But she also acknowledged it’s not an easy place for Democrats to win.
“The presidential swing between 2012 and 2016 combined with very obvious grassroots energy are reason for optimism, but of course this is a tough district and hasn’t been in Democratic hands in recent history,” said Meredith Kelly, DCCC spokeswoman.