You might think that there is a certain futility that comes with going to a Democratic gathering to sniff out how Democrats really think they are doing in the contest for Georgia’s Sixth District.
And you’d be right, but only in part.
Forty-eight hours after Jon Ossoff pulled 48 percent of the vote in a GOP stronghold, the Democratic state party apparatus held its annual fundraiser at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta.
Republicans have claimed that Ossoff has given it his best shot, and presume that in a June 20 runoff the district’s GOP history will reassert itself. So there was a journalistic obligation to see if Democrats agreed.
In past years, the annual event (formerly tagged “the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner”) has been a sparsely attended occasion for wound-licking. But there was no cringing on Thursday night, and the crowd was sizeable – with a number of first-time attendees.
Jason Carter, the former candidate for governor, pointed east. “These people are from Coweta County,” he said, and then pointed west. “Those people are from Spalding County. It’s not just DeKalb and Fulton people here. That’s different.”
Ben Meyers, an old union hand, is chairman of the Sixth District Democratic party, and had a place at the table with Ossoff. He spoke of monthly breakfast meetings on his district’s western side.
“All of a sudden, it literally exploded,” Meyers said. “The Cobb County breakfast had to be changed three different times to up-size the location, because of the amount of people who came. We’re talking Cobb County.”
Michael Owens, chairman of Cobb Democrats, endorsed Meyers account. In the old days, Owens would have to send out tens of thousands of email nudges to generate a quorum. No more.
But they would say all that, wouldn’t they? And so the practiced skeptic looks at behavior.
The first speaker of the evening was Tom Perez, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He was a reminder that national politics is in many ways a small town – one in which everyone knows everyone else.
Perez let it be known that his press secretary, a Georgia native, had been Ossoff’s roommate at Georgetown University. Perez is familiar with Karen Handel, too.
He headed up the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department when Handel was Georgia’s secretary of state. Perez identified her as one of many Republicans “on this ideological mission to make it harder for eligible people to vote. I’m proud to tell you we sued your former secretary of state." (He didn't mention the Justice Department lost.)"
And then DNC chairman dashed out a side door, ignoring all requests for a little facetime with the Fourth Estate.
Ossoff was obviously the star of the evening. But after arriving late and being mobbed at his front row table, he had only a brief, three-minute stint in the spotlight. He thanked the proper people, gave a modified version of his stump speech, and then vanished.
Again ignoring any encore with the press.
These snubs aren’t something to be resented. To extrapolate from Citizens United, silence is simply another form of speech, and so we must listen to what it says.
Earlier in the week, Perez had been hooted at by Bernie Sanders supporters at a “unity” rally in Maine, and no doubt wanted to avoid any questions about an experience that bespoke hard feelings left over from the 2016 presidential primary.
As for Ossoff, who is running as a centrist Democrat, it is fair to theorize that the candidate wanted to be out of the room when that firebrand, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of California, rose to perform her job as the evening’s keynote speaker. Waters has made recent headlines by using the word “impeach” when discussing President Donald Trump.
The point is that both men behaved in a genuinely cautious, but very calculated manner. Which implies that there is something valuable in hand that could be lost with a wrong move.
There are numbers that bear out this line of thought.
Also at the Democratic dinner was Alan Abramowitz, the Emory University political scientist. (He was the guest of his wife, a staffer for state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta.)
Five polls have already surfaced, posing an Ossoff-Handel match-up. Average them all, the academic said, and Ossoff has a lead of “less than one point.”
But it is the margin of Ossoff's lead on Tuesday that grabs his attention.
“It would be different if [Ossoff] had 40 percent. Forty-eight? That’s putting him very close. The margin between him and Karen Handel is quite large. It’s 28 points,” Abramowitz said.
Which led me, once I arrived home, to lob an email in the direction of Charles Bullock, Abramowitz’ counterpart at the University of Georgia. One of Bullock’s many specialties is the study of runoffs in Georgia elections. He’s written one book on the topic, and his research continues.
“The research in the book found that the larger the margin of the primary leader, the more likely the leader would win the second round,” Bullock wrote in reply. “Research I am currently doing, which includes Georgia elections through 2016, continues to find primary margin the most powerful predictor.
“In 54 congressional runoffs since 1966, the primary leader won 79.6 percent,” he added.
That’s an impressive number. So the answer is, yes, Democrats really do believe they have a chance to win the Sixth District in June. And if Handel and her Republican friends are smart, they’ll believe it, too.
And behave accordingly.