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The Democrats struggle to rise from the ashes

Close to a decade ago, as Barack Obama was cresting toward his first presidential victory, Jim Martin pleaded desperately for his help. Martin was a progressive Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in Georgia, and for most of the race he had been an underdog, outspent five to one. Then, a month before the vote, things began to change. Wall Street was crashing, the global economy teetered on the brink of catastrophe, Bush’s bank bailout was wildly unpopular. Martin, who had denounced the bailout as a Wall Street giveaway, started to close in on his Republican opponent. Respected pundits began calling the race a toss-up. All that was needed was a little help from the top of the Democratic ticket. A visit by Obama himself, his signature on a fund-raising letter, a major TV-commercial buy—just about any visible show of support could “move the needle,” as Jay Martin, a senior adviser on his father’s campaign, told me recently. The gap in the polls narrowed to a tantalizing point or two. “We just needed the energy of a presidential campaign to come to Georgia,” reflected Martin, reliving the hope and bitterness of those days. “Obama, Biden, Michelle, Jill Biden—anyone.”

A campaign sign in Marietta, Georgia, for Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate for the congressional seat vacated by Tom Price, who joined Donald Trump’s Cabinet as secretary of health and human services © Maura Friedman/Redux Pictures/New York Times

It was not to be. Obama and his campaign team had already deemed Georgia a lost cause, leaving Democrats there to sink or swim. In the end, Jim Martin was defeated by just three points. (Obama, whom polls had showed close to winning the state, lost it by five.) But because his opponent, Saxby Chambliss, had failed to reach 50 percent, Georgia law mandated a runoff, which was scheduled for the following month. Once again, Martin begged for help. The Obama team, reluctant to blemish its epic national victory with a potential loss in Georgia, limited its participation to a single radio spot, which was not enough to offset a significant drop-off in black turnout, predictable without Obama himself on the ballot. Again, Martin lost, this time by fifteen points.

It was a meaningful defeat: Obama entered the White House in 2009 one vote short of the senatorial supermajority needed to push through his agenda. This may not have initially disturbed the new president, cherishing as he did a touching faith in Republican willingness to support his “nonideological” proposals—even, perhaps, furnishing a bipartisan majority for health care reform.

As it was, the Obama Administration spent long months waiting for a drawn-out recount battle to confirm Al Franken as winner of the Minnesota Senate race. But even with Franken in place, the sixtieth vote remained elusive. It required tortuous negotiations with “moderate” Democrats such as Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Ben Nelson of Nebraska—Republicans in all but name—to pass even a heavily compromised Affordable Care Act.

As Marshall Ganz, a union organizer who advised the 2008 Obama team on its grassroots operation, recently commented, “Obama’s whole approach was to minimize opposition, rather than to maximize support.” It was, Ganz added, a “feckless task.”

But not everyone abandoned Jim Martin. Obama’s aloofness to his desperate runoff battle had not extended all the way down the chain. Throughout November, hundreds of grassroots organizers—the ground troops of Obama’s victorious campaign (created, ironically, with the help of Ganz)—spontaneously moved into the state to help. “Amazing, impressive people,” recalled Jay Martin. “They came from around the country, and not at the direction of anyone in Obama World. It was a beautiful thing to see.”

This February, I sat in a hotel ballroom in Atlanta, surrounded by the spiritual descendants of those hopeful ground troops, politically energized and mostly young. The occasion was a ritual traditionally deemed as exciting as a library-book renewal: the election of the chairman and officers of the Democratic National Committee. In fact, no one I talked to could remember anyone ever bothering to contest a D.N.C. election before. But the inexorable Democratic decline—the thousand legislative seats across the country surrendered to the Republicans since 2008, followed by the triumph of Donald Trump—had unleashed powerful demands to remake a party that two thirds of Americans have told pollsters is “out of touch.”

The D.N.C., as confirmed by its hacked emails, had worked hard to throttle Bernie Sanders’s progressive insurgency to the benefit of Hillary Clinton, who then proceeded to lead the party over a cliff. Now the progressives were trying again. This time, they hoped to elect Keith Ellison, an African-American congressman from Minnesota, as D.N.C. chairman. All those seated around me were fervent Ellison partisans, many identifiable as such by their green keith T-shirts. Elsewhere in the huge hall, scattered blocs of color denoted other teams, most prominently the blue tom T-shirts worn by adherents of Tom Perez. The former labor secretary, an ardent supporter of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership corporate giveaway, had been personally recruited by the president to run for the D.N.C. chairmanship and ward off an Ellison victory.

“Not big money, party for the people!” chanted the Ellison supporters. “Keith, Keith, Keith!” Behind me, two young women from the Atlanta suburbs, Dana Bowers and Faith Chikwekwe, both active in the 2016 Sanders campaign, chatted about their support for the Minnesota congressman. They stressed their faith in door-to-door campaigning, their chagrin at the treatment of progressives by the Democratic establishment, and their disappointment that Sanders had lost the nomination in a year of populist upsurge.

“I voted for Hillary Clinton with no enthusiasm,” said Bowers, the cofounder of the Georgia branch of Democracy Spring, a group dedicated to driving money out of politics. Since the election, the branch had grown from some 200 members to around 1,700. “If Keith Ellison loses, that will be the third time progressives have been snubbed in the Democratic Party.”

I didn’t say so, but I had a strong suspicion that another snub was on the way. Former members of the Obama Administration had confirmed that the president hoped to block an Ellison victory. “He wanted to stop the Sanders wing of the party from taking over,” one such official told me. That was certainly the view of Jeff Weaver, the Vermont senator’s former campaign manager. “The sole reason Perez is running is to stop Ellison,” he told me angrily. “He has no platform of his own.”

Clearly, Ellison and the pro-Sanders movement supporting him (which reportedly helped to raise $1 million for the effort) represented a threat to powerful interests. Remarks by the Minnesota congressman and Muslim convert on the topics of Palestine and Islam had elicited angry warnings from Haim Saban, the media mogul and philanthropist who once forked over $7 million to help rebuild the D.N.C. headquarters in Washington and told the New York Times, “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel.” Ellison, Saban warned, “would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.”

Now, on a Saturday morning in Atlanta, the campaign for chairman was reaching its climax. On a distant stage, beyond a roped-off enclosure corralling the 447 members of the D.N.C., the candidates and their supporters were addressing the crowd, pledging to rebuild the party at the state level and reconnect with voters and local communities. Behind the scenes, or at least out of sight of the rank and file, party heavyweights were employing more hard-nosed tactics.

“I saw it,” Jane Kleeb, leader of the Nebraska Democratic Party and a firm Ellison supporter, told me later. Former governors and senators were calling “state chairs and officers who had votes and saying, ‘We really need you to go with Team Perez.’?” The tactics were sometimes brutal. I myself heard that the Iowa delegation flipped to Perez in response to threats that the state would otherwise be stripped of its treasured status as the first to vote in presidential nomination contests. Even so, the Ellison camp appeared confident: the night before, they had been telling supporters that they were within five votes of victory. (The Perez camp had been making the same claim.) For anyone paying attention, however, the ultimate result had been clear since earlier that morning, when the party reaffirmed its faith in big money.

In one of his more progressive acts, Obama had banned his party from soliciting or accepting corporate PAC money. But in 2016, it emerged that D.N.C. chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had lifted the ban. It was done in secret, but almost certainly with White House approval. “We were never told about it,” said Christine Pelosi, a member of the D.N.C. executive committee (and the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader). “We read about it online, months later.”

Pelosi, who describes herself as an “antiestablishment establishment person,” had come to Atlanta with a resolution to reinstate Obama’s ban. She immediately ran into furious opposition. “We lost a thousand seats because we didn’t have corporate money,” one senior party functionary assured her. Pelosi dismissed her argument. “There was plenty of money,” she told me, in spite of Obama’s ban. As for the $18 million in corporate funds that came in after the ban was lifted, that went straight into Clinton’s campaign chest.

The contrary view was most succinctly summarized by Terry Lierman, a longtime friend and supporter of Perez and a former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party. He told me that the party should of course solicit from corporations—“because that’s where the money is.” (He did add a pious reference to the “energy” of small donors.) As it turned out, this perspective was shared by most delegates, no doubt including those who were themselves lobbyists for major corporations such as Goldman Sachs, Lockheed Martin, and Pfizer. When all those opposed to Pelosi’s effort were asked to stand up, a solid majority shot to their feet.

As for the chairmanship, Perez led on the first ballot and won decisively on the second. Now that the establishment had beaten back the Ellison challenge, it faced a no less urgent task: preventing those progressives from bolting the party. To that end, Perez at once embraced (literally) Ellison and named him to an undefined position as deputy chairman. Everyone stood to applaud this display of unity, but as I hurried from the hall to catch my plane, I glanced back at Faith Chikwekwe. She was on her feet again, chanting, and she didn’t look happy.

Kleeb left Atlanta and flew home to Nebraska and her full-time unpaid job leading a state party that, like so many others across the country, had withered even as Obama occupied the White House for two terms. In those years, as she saw it, the D.N.C. remained focused almost entirely on Obama’s reelection and policy goals. That was “obviously critical,” she said. “But then we lost all these down-ballot races.”

These days, Kleeb operates on a “shoestring budget,” with $7,500 a month from party headquarters in Washington making up the bulk of the funding—just enough to pay two staffers, hold town halls, and train candidates. “We don’t have a ton of money for all of the things we should be doing,” she told me, “like really intensive voter-registration programs.” She especially regrets not being able to hire a Spanish-speaking staffer, since some Nebraska towns are now 50 percent Latino.

Rural communities in a Midwestern state that has voted Republican in the past thirteen presidential elections may seem irredeemably lost to Washington Democrats. But Kleeb, who comes from a ranching family, has evidence as well as faith that they can be won over. She has worked among them for years, including as a highly effective organizer against the Keystone XL pipeline, projected to run across the state (and perilously close to a vital aquifer), and on health care reform. These people, she recalled, “turned out in massive numbers for town halls. They deeply care about protecting their community, whether it’s their rural hospital or their water supply.”

Unfortunately, Kleeb continued, Democrats have failed to maintain a presence in such places. At county fairs, there are no Democratic Party booths or brochures, and no rider bearing the party flag at rodeos. “It’s the ongoing story,” she said. “If there’s only one church in your small town, guess what religion you are?”

Kleeb dates the party’s drift away from organizing at the state and local levels to 2004, when George W. Bush was reelected and she led the national Young Democrats of America. At that point, it became fashionable to ascribe the party’s continuing losses to a “data problem”—which in turn generated calls for a more centralized organization that could produce better data and voter models and thus lead to victory. Naturally, this proved an expensive operation, lucrative to some. In no time there appeared a glut of “donor advisers”—professionals dedicated to recruiting and advising major contributors—along with specialized consulting firms hawking their expertise in voter-data analysis. The result: While the consultants got rich, the state parties were starved of resources.

In addition, once Obama became president, he maintained his campaign organization, Obama for America. Headed by well-remunerated consultants, O.F.A. competed with the national party for donors’ affections. Not until 2015 did the group (rechristened Organizing for Action) share its invaluable email list with the D.N.C.

Notoriously, the 2016 Clinton campaign put all its trust in a data-driven voter model. In Nebraska, Kleeb remembered the Clinton team working hard. “But what they were missing was the real grassroots person-to-person campaign. They had these sophisticated voter models and their organizers had very specific numerical goals they had to hit at the end of every day. It had no heart. That matters, you know. People vote for people because they think they care about them. It’s not a transactional process, which is exactly what the Clinton campaign was.” (It didn’t help that the voter model failed in many ways to reflect the real-life electorate, fatally underestimating, for example, the number of Trump voters.)

Such withering critiques might warrant major changes in a defeated party’s way of doing business. But indications are that many leading players see no reason why business should not continue as usual.

Clinton, for example, focused heavily on Trump’s unfitness to be president, employing among others the talents and resources of David Brock, the former right-wing hit man turned Clinton acolyte, and his richly funded stable of PACs and NGOs, notably American Bridge and Media Matters. The strategy failed. Nevertheless, on the weekend that Trump celebrated his inauguration and millions of people marched in cities around the world, Brock convened a gathering of big-money donors and party functionaries at a Florida resort to discuss his strategy for defeating the new president. The idea, according to a leaked internal document, was to “keep Trump unpopular and make it more difficult for candidates who support him to get elected in 2018.” To this end, American Bridge would create a “war room” to direct the attack, which effort would require $7.8 million on top of the group’s core $14.7 million budget. “I was banging my head against a wall,” said Kleeb, when she learned of Brock’s proposal. “David Brock’s organization got seventy-five million dollars last year! What did he do with that money? You could have given a million dollars to each of the state parties.”

“I’ve seen no sign of any mea culpa among the Democratic leadership,” agreed Steve Phillips, a civil rights lawyer and political activist. “There’s a lot of jockeying for who is to be the strategist for the fight against Trump—but no sign that they’re willing to shift to a different strategy.” Phillips, the author of Brown Is the New White, firmly believes that the future of the Democratic Party lies in America’s changing demographics, meaning the increasing numbers of voters of color—African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans—who are thought to form an inherently progressive bloc. (Exit polls show that African Americans vote 90 percent Democratic, Latinos between 67 and 70 percent.) Together with progressive white voters, they should form an unbeatable electoral coalition. In his view, the 2016 election, as disastrous as it may have been, still vindicated his thesis. That is, the Democrats won an overall majority and lost ten states by less than ten points—and might have done even better if they had stopped chasing white swing voters while taking the black vote for granted.

I met Phillips in March, at another gathering of big-money Democrats, who had descended on Washington’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel for one of their semiannual meetings. The Democracy Alliance, a coordinating group founded in the wake of the 2004 defeat, requires members to commit at least $200,000 a year to designated campaigns and causes. The meeting, billed as A Time for Action: Rebuilding and Resisting, was supposedly devoted to “winning the states.” There was a great deal of earnest protestation to this effect in the closed-door meetings, but as one dispirited participant commented later, there was little in the way of self-examination. Instead, the message he received was: “We did nothing wrong, we’re going to do it the same way with the same people, and this time we’re going to win. Fund us.” He also noted the presence on one panel of Guy Cecil—the chairman of Priorities USA Action, the super PAC that spent $190 million in support of Hillary Clinton—who, he said, was now maneuvering to be the “face of the resistance.” If so, it was an ambition Cecil apparently shared with Brock, as well as with the overseers of Obama’s O.F.A. and other veterans of campaigns gone by.

While the big donors and their donor advisers gathered for addresses by party eminences, a livelier set congregated in and around the hotel bars. At a late-night get-together, I encountered Ezra Levin, the former congressional staffer who cofounded Indivisible, the resistance guide and nonprofit that has galvanized hundreds of thousands of irate Americans into concerted action. As Levin made clear, Indivisible is a movement specifically designed to put pressure on members of Congress.

“Progressives don’t have agenda-setting power,” he had told me in an earlier conversation. “We don’t have the House, the Senate, or the presidency. But we have the power to respond to whatever bad thing Congress or the administration is doing this week.” Now I asked him why Indivisible, like many other resistance groups, had so little to say about America’s numerous ongoing wars. He replied that the organization might focus on them when, say, “there’s a real budget fight over Trump’s proposals to massively increase the size of defense spending while cutting everything else.” In his view, legislators succumbed to pressure only when an issue was right in front of them. “Otherwise, it’s in one ear, out the other.”

Several people floating around the hotel bar were charting innovative ways of mounting resistance, not only to Trump but also to more enduring manifestations of an unjust society. I spotted Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change. The group, founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and dedicated to “building a new, effective strategy for changing the rules society lives by,” now boasts 1.2 million members. Robinson was eager to discuss a current campaign for bail reform—in many states, bail is effectively a form of debtors’ prison—which involves applying pressure to the insurance companies that underpin the system. “The bail bondsmen could not operate without the insurance corporations,” he explained to me, bouncing animatedly on his heels.

Robinson and his colleagues have become adept at deploying 450,000 core activists who can be relied on to make phone calls, send emails, and show up at rallies. A few weeks after our conversation, Color of Change adroitly used such means to pressure corporations to pull their advertising from Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show, leading to the prompt ouster of the talk show host and alleged sexual predator. Back in 2011, the group had gotten Glenn Beck fired using the same techniques. (To Robinson’s great irritation, Brock’s Media Matters has attempted to take credit for these artfully managed campaigns.)

Also present at the Mandarin Oriental was Ryan Greenwood. Formerly the political director of TakeAction Minnesota, a grassroots group that helped elect Mark Dayton, the state’s progressive governor, he is now director of movement politics at the million-strong People’s Action, formed last year in a merger of several groups long involved in issues such as health care, criminal justice, finance reform, and immigrants’ rights. Traditionally, these organizations have disdained involvement in electoral politics in favor of community activism, preferring to pressure officials and lawmakers rather than replace them—a guiding principle laid down decades ago by the founding father of community activism, Saul Alinsky. But now, with a boost from the success of the Sanders campaign, they are contesting and sometimes winning elections: a hugely significant shift.

“Community organizations have been fighting for social justice for decades,” Greenwood told me, “like putting a hundred people on a landlord’s doorstep or occupying a ­JPMorgan shareholders’ meeting in Columbus, Ohio.” (That legendary action involved laying a plywood drawbridge across a moat encircling the meeting place.) “But real power in this country is not going to be won by community organizations,” he continued. “We need governing power, we need to take control of offices—and not with any old Democrat but with people who share our values.” To that end, People’s Action has been working intensively to recruit candidates and run campaigns in local and state elections, such as the successful drive last year to elect Kim Foxx, a progressive chief prosecutor, in Cook County, Illinois. According to Greenwood, Reclaim Chicago, the local People’s Action affiliate, “supplied half of her field operation” and has been steadily boosting progressives onto the city council and the powerful local Democratic Committee.

I was to learn more about People’s Action a few weeks later, at their founding convention, which drew 1,400 activists to Washington. The focus was almost entirely on motivating and preparing people to run for office, though a number of supporters did take time off to occupy the lobby of the right-wing Heritage Foundation. When keynote speaker Bernie Sanders addressed the cheering crowd, he shared the stage with dozens of candidates for local office around the country, all of whom pledged in unison to fight for the People’s Action agenda: Economic Systems Built for People, Not Profit.

The candidates included Daniel Biss, a former math teacher elected to the Illinois Senate in 2012, who is now running for governor against, as he put it, “two billionaires and a millionaire.” He was referring to the Republican incumbent, Bruce Rauner, who garnered his pile in private equity and has so far donated $50 million to himself for the race, and fellow Democratic primary candidate J.?B. Pritzker, a Hillary Clinton mega-donor. “The Democrats have decided that the only way to challenge a billionaire was with another billionaire,” he shrugged. Chris Kennedy, a son of RFK, is the mere millionaire in the race. (Biss, it must be said, is not running entirely on fumes, having raised $1.5 million, primarily in small donations.) The others on the stage were running for lower-profile posts: councilman, county supervisor. The group’s long-term plan is to assemble a bench of experienced candidates and organizers who can move up the electoral ladder to state and federal power.

A recurring theme in my conversations with Kleeb, Phillips, Greenwood, and others was the importance (and potential reward) of working in places that establishment Democrats have long written off. While a Democratic stronghold like Chicago, for example, might seem fruitful ground for left politics, red districts in Kansas tend to be ignored by the D.N.C. and related party organizations. But in 2014, Kansas People’s Action took note of the fact that some 55,000 blacks and Latinos who turned out for Obama in 2008 had subsequently lost interest in voting. An intensive campaign mobilized many of these “low-propensity voters” to return to the polls against the austerity fanatic Sam Brownback and his xenophobic secretary of state, Kris Kobach. “We were planting seeds,” I was told by a People’s Action organizer, Lupe Magdaleno.

Both Brownback and Kobach won reelection. Yet the effort galvanized a pool of potential voters—who could tilt the scales in the special election for the seat vacated by Mike Pompeo, the right-wing Wichita congressman selected by Trump to head the CIA. The man the state party leaders had in mind, Dennis ­McKinney, was an antiabortion conservative Democrat who had already run for state office against the Republican candidate and been defeated. Nevertheless, the establishment, resigned to a losing battle, deemed him a “safer choice,” according to one local Democratic activist.

Delegates at a party convention defied the leadership and chose James Thompson, a progressive pro-choice Wichita attorney. Thompson was known in the city (and certainly in the African-American community) as just about the only lawyer taking on what he summarized to me as “a lot of excessive-force cases, police shootings, racial-discrimination cases.” Having grown up poor, the breadwinner at age sixteen of his homeless family, Thompson ran as (in the words of his communications director, Chris Pumpelly) “an unabashed working-class Democrat, something that hasn’t been seen in Kansas in quite some time.”

Even after Thompson’s selection as candidate, the D.N.C. and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (known in the trade as D-Trip) showed little interest in what to them was clearly a lost cause. Trump had carried the district by twenty-seven points, Pompeo by thirty-one. “D-Trip helped arrange some get-out-the-vote calls the day before the election,” Thompson told me, but that was the sum total of their support. The state party meanwhile confined itself to handing over a voter file, used to identify likely Democratic voters—as they are obligated to do for any nominated candidate. As for finances, the candidate was on his own.

Predictably outspent by the competition, and with little cash to spare for TV and radio ads, Thompson relied heavily on door-to-door canvassing, with a special focus on African-American and Latino neighborhoods. Aiding the efforts of local activists, volunteers poured in from as far away as California: 150 arrived on Election Day alone. This activist army hit neighborhoods at a rate reportedly unprecedented in Kansas politics. Meanwhile, as progressive groups around the country rallied in support with phone banks and donations, the outside world remained studiously oblivious.

Pundits confidently labeled the race “solid Republican” until a week before the April 11 vote—at which point the G.O.P. took a poll and discovered to their horror that they were in danger of losing. “Their only solution was to explode the universe,” Pumpelly said. “They brought in Ted Cruz, they got Paul Ryan to make robo­calls, Vice President Pence, the president of the United States himself.” A torrent of fake-news TV ads portrayed Thompson as an advocate of “gender selective” abortions.

On the day, Thompson lost, but cut the previously huge Republican margin down to six points. Turnout, at 29 percent, far exceeded his team’s prediction of 20 percent. A close look at the figures revealed that several years of investment in the black and Latino communities had begun to pay off. According to Thompson number-cruncher Marcus Williamson, turnout was much higher in the city of Wichita, which Thompson carried by a solid majority, than in the rural counties of the district. More specifically, black and Latino precincts showed up at an even higher rate than the city as a whole.

In Georgia, another campaign was also invested in the unorthodox belief that rousing previously disengaged communities to come out and vote could be the key to victory even in the reddest of states. Just as Kansas People’s Action sowed seeds for the Thompson campaign, the New Georgia Project aimed to mobilize people, principally African Americans, who haven’t voted because they see little reason to. The group was founded by Stacey Abrams, the minority leader in the state legislature. She told me that “infrequent voters tend to be people of color, tend to be lower income, tend to be younger,” and are therefore routinely ignored by politicians. Thus it is that while Georgia is 54 percent white and 41 percent black and Latino, the voting population is 56 percent white, 34 percent black and Latino. Getting those communities engaged, Abrams insisted, required offering them some meaningful prospect of change, as opposed to the traditional fare of retail politics, which she summed up in a single word: pabulum.

As we spoke, an election on the outskirts of Atlanta threatened to put Abrams’s ideas into practice. Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District faced a special election to replace Tom Price, another congressman recently elevated to Trump’s cabinet, and the Democrats had selected Jon Ossoff, a young and obscure filmmaker. In the initial vote, Ossoff narrowly missed the 50 percent mark, necessitating a June runoff—and Nse Ufot, the executive director of the New Georgia Project, assured me that newly mobilized minority voters had indeed turned out.

Among those toiling nonstop on the hustings were Dana Bowers and Faith Chikwekwe, whom I had last seen absorbing the crushing disappointment of Ellison’s loss at the D.N.C. “We’ve been working with the New Georgia Project to register voters, knocking on every door,” Bowers told me cheerfully. She is also canvasing for Ossoff, and made it clear that her support for the Democrat was by no means unconditional. “It was when he rejected corporate money that I got involved.”

Like the Kansas district, Georgia’s Sixth had been electing Republicans for years. This time around, however, the D.N.C. gave the long-shot Democrat its blessing, not least because he attracted astonishing sums of money: more than $8 million two and a half weeks before the vote (to the immense gratification of the local election-industrial complex). With the money came a slew of high-powered Democratic consultants, who, as such people tend to do, cautioned Ossoff to hew to the political center—advising him, for example, to stay away from the Women’s March on January 21. (He had the good sense to ignore this advice.) Equally tellingly, they cautioned him against investing in yard signs, thus following election-industry wisdom that dismisses such cheap campaign tools as unscientific.

Becky Bond, a driving force behind the grassroots Sanders campaign in 2016, calls this mentality “small organizing.” As she writes in Rules for Revolutionaries, campaign professionals have used voter-modeling data to “?‘microtarget’ tiny slices of the electorate in the hopes that winning these segments would add up to a narrow majority.” As a result, Bond argues, fewer and fewer people participate in elections, because the changes promised are too small to be worth anyone’s time, leading campaigners in turn to lower their expectations of how many will come out and vote.

The voices that urged Ossoff to stay away from the Women’s March—presumably out of fear of offending Republican swing voters—and to skip the yard signs definitely sound like small organizers. The counterblast came from Jen Cox, a real estate agent in Marietta. With no previous political experience, Cox cofounded ­PaveItBlue, one of many such groups that have sprung up in the district, and which now has two thousand members working the streets.

She recalled how Ossoff wonkishly informed her that “the data” decreed yard signs ineffective. In response, she told the candidate that if he didn’t “reach us up here on an emotional level and give us hope, we have a hard time getting engaged. If you put signs out, we feel that someone is paying attention, and that our voice matters and our votes matter. We haven’t seen yard signs that weren’t Republican in decades.” Gearing up for the June runoff, Cox said, “The energy here is electric.” Her message was clear: “We are here. And no Republican seats are safe.”

is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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