Politics

Ossoff Campaign Steps Up Field Efforts for June Runoff

Georgia Democrat’s campaign spent $2 million in field for primary

A volunteer for Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff arrives at a campaign office to canvass the district the day before the April 18 open primary. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Ahead of the June runoff in Georgia’s 6th District, Democrat Jon Ossoff’s big-spending campaign is ramping up its “field-first” strategy for the next two months.  

Ossoff’s team spent nearly $2 million on its field efforts for last week’s primary, including paying for a Lyft code in the district so that voters without a ride could get to the polls on Election Day.

The campaign is already expanding its field operations, with a particular focus on voter turnout and persuasion. On the latter front, it’s now going after independent and Republican voters who may be unenthused by a GOP nominee who’s lost two statewide bids in the past decade.

[Jon Ossoff, Karen Handel Advance to Runoff in Georgia Special Election]

The campaign is planning to turn its grass-roots support into the “largest voter contact program the state of Georgia has ever seen,” according to a field memo from campaign manager Keenan Pontoni, obtained by Roll Call. 

Ossoff raised an astounding $8.3 million by the time his most recent fundraising report was due to the Federal Election Commission — and likely much more by the April 18 primary — and spent well over $6 million. 

His GOP opponent in the runoff, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, raised $457,000 and spent $280,000. (Although again, she likely raised and spent more since the period covered by fundraising reports ended in March.)

Still bringing it in

And the fundraising hasn’t slowed since: Ossoff’s campaign raised $500,000 alone the day after the primary. Handel’s campaign is on track to raise $1 million in the six days since the primary by the end of Monday. 

Ossoff has faced criticism for spending too much on television, but his campaign is quick to point out how its field operation — on which it spent more than some House candidates spend on an entire campaign — has set it apart. 

“With $2 million dedicated to voter-to-voter contact, early registration, and voter turnout, it’d be hard for us to find a congressional race that has ever come close to that kind of operation,” said Sacha Haworth, a senior adviser and spokeswoman for the Ossoff campaign.

But for all those millions spent on advertising and field operations, the first-time candidate fell short of his goal of winning the 18-candidate primary outright. (Winning the jungle primary would have required winning more than 50 percent of the vote.) Ossoff took 48 percent — just a percentage point more than Hillary Clinton’s score last fall, despite spending little in Georgia.  

[Georgia Runoff Will Test Both Parties’ Political Alliances]

Still, Ossoff has heralded that primary showing as a victory since the average congressional Democrat only won about 35 percent in the district over the last decade.

“There is no doubt that this is already a victory for the ages,” Ossoff said in a speech to supporters on election night.

Comparisons to Clinton’s percentage of the vote are inaccurate, the campaign argued, because last fall was a presidential year with an already energized electorate. 

In what would normally be a low-turnout special election, Ossoff’s campaign is crediting its field efforts for helping raise turnout closer to midterm levels. Ossoff himself gives special credit to women in the 6th District for building the momentum around his campaign. Two groups in particular — Pave it Blue and Liberal Moms of Roswell and Cobb counties — helped boost the former Hill staffer. 

[Among 18 Georgia Candidates, One Competitive Woman]

Tough race ahead

But there’s no question Ossoff has a tough race ahead of him now that it’s a two-person race for a seat Republicans have held for 38 years. Handel, having run for governor and Senate before, has high name recognition in the district and the support of many of her former GOP opponents. 

Volunteers show their support for Ossoff at a rally on the eve of last week’s election. (Simone Pathé/CQ Roll Call).
Volunteers show their support for Ossoff at a rally on the eve of last week’s election. (Simone Pathé/CQ Roll Call).

But the Ossoff campaign sees its ground operation as an early advantage over Handel, who had about 30 dedicated volunteers heading into a primary contest that was heavily fractured on the GOP side. 

By the end of the primary, Ossoff’s team had recruited nearly 10,000 unique volunteers and hired 100 field staffers. Since February, field staff knocked on more than 250,000 doors. With the Democratic Party coalescing early behind Ossoff, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee trained and built up much of his field team. The campaign’s goal is to hire dozens more field staff by the time of the runoff. 

For the primary, the campaign had precinct captains in more than half of the district’s 209 precincts. Leading up the runoff, the goal is to have a precinct captain in all of them. These local leaders help foster “neighbor-to-neighbor” conversations about the race.

And then there are the house parties. While they may sound quaint, they were a big part of the Democrats’ ability to mobilize grass-roots energy in suburban Atlanta, according to the campaign. Ossoff’s team held anywhere from one to three parties a day, with 50 alone in the final six weeks leading up to the primary.

Heading into the runoff, the focus of those parties will increasingly be to reach out to independent or GOP voters who may not be satisfied with the choice they have in Handel or with President Donald Trump, who barely carried the district in November, and whose support Handel now enjoys. 

As it did for the primary, when it won most of the early-vote and vote-by-mail ballots, the Ossoff campaign plans to spend additional resources on efforts to get out the vote. Get-out-the-vote spending will be especially important for both parties since a late June runoff coincides with the beginning of summer vacation season.

Extensive field efforts in the 6th District, which could be the most expensive House race in the country, won’t be limited to the Democratic side. GOP outside groups, from the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, will be investing heavily to keep this district red, while Handel herself staffs up.

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