Mr. Sanders rallied his youthful, often-raucous coalition Saturday night at a gathering dubbed the “People’s Summit,” where supporters hailed him in worshipful language. One Colorado couple hauled a small banner through the hangar-size McCormick Place, pleading with the still-independent Vermont senator to create a new “People’s Party.”
Mr. Sanders and many attendees enthused over the surprise showing of the British Labour Party, under the left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, in last week’s election. Democrats can electrify voters, they warned, only by embracing the Sanders agenda of universal health care, free college tuition and full employment.
Speaking for just under an hour, Mr. Sanders, who was met with chants of “Bernie, Bernie” and pleas of “2020!,” crowed that while he may have lost the 2016 primary, “We have won the battle of ideas and we are continuing to win that battle.”
He assailed President Trump in blistering terms, but earned some of his loudest cheers for attacking the party whose nomination he sought last year. “The current model and the current strategy of the Democratic Party is an absolute failure,” Mr. Sanders said to booming applause, arguing that Democrats need “fundamental change.”
“The Democratic Party must finally understand which side is it on,” he said.
Yet the party’s elected leaders, and many of its candidates, are far more dispassionate, sharing a cold-eyed recognition of the need to scrounge for votes in forbidding precincts. They have taken as a model the Democratic campaign of 2006, when the party won control of Congress in part by competing for conservative corners of the country and recruiting challengers who broke with liberal orthodoxy.
Outside Atlanta on Friday, Jon Ossoff offered a decidedly un-Sanders-like vision of the future in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, a conservative-leaning patchwork of office plazas and upscale malls, where voters attended his campaign events wearing golf shirts and designer eyewear.
In a special election that has become the most expensive House race in history, Mr. Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide, presented himself as essentially anti-ideological. Greeting suburban parents near a playground and giving a pep talk to volunteers, he stressed broadly popular policies like fighting air and water pollution and preserving insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
Bucking the left, Mr. Ossoff said in an interview that he would not support raising income taxes, even for the wealthy, and opposed “any move” toward a single-payer health care system. Attacked by Republicans for his ties to national liberals, Mr. Ossoff said he had not yet given “an ounce of thought” to whether he would vote for Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, in a future ballot for speaker.
His own race, Mr. Ossoff told supporters, was about “sending a message to Washington.” But that message, he said, was about “decency and respect and unity, rather than division.”
“There’s a coalition of folks here in Georgia who want representation that’s focused on local economic development and on accountability,” Mr. Ossoff said in the interview, “and not on the partisan circus in Washington.”
The tension between Mr. Ossoff’s message and the appetites of the national Democratic base has not appeared to hinder his bid for Congress. He has raised more than $23 million, an astonishing sum, largely in small online donations from Democrats seeking to put a dent in the Republicans’ House majority. Several polls over the last week showed Mr. Ossoff leading his Republican opponent, Karen Handel, though both parties agree that the race remains a tossup.
Winning over Republican voters remains a critical task. Though he launched his campaign pledging to “make Trump furious,” Mr. Ossoff did not bring up the president in his campaign events, and he has called talk of impeachment premature.
Stephanie Runyan, a business consultant who is a precinct captain for Mr. Ossoff, said he had recognized the limits of a liberal message in the affluent Atlanta suburbs.
“A lot of us are not true-blue liberals,” said Ms. Runyan, 46, who is a Democrat.
It is unclear, however, whether Democratic activists across the country will tolerate an army of Ossoff-type candidates in 2018, when party leaders believe the path to capturing the House runs through purple-hued suburban districts that are somewhat less Republican than Georgia’s Sixth.
Friction has already flared between Democrats heavily invested in Mr. Ossoff’s race and activists closely aligned with Mr. Sanders. In April, Mr. Sanders declined to say if he considered Mr. Ossoff a progressive, causing an uproar that he calmed by urging Mr. Ossoff’s election.
Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who is on the board of Mr. Sanders’s political organization, suggested in Chicago that Democrats risked slumbering through the revolution, suggesting an unofficial slogan for the party: “Hashtag, ‘Not Woke Yet.’”
“Unity for unity’s sake,” she warned, “is not going to happen.”
Party strategists say they have taken steps to build a relationship with Mr. Sanders and his organization, and a top Sanders lieutenant, Jeff Weaver, attended a recent briefing hosted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, along with representatives from Planned Parenthood, the liberal group Swing Left and Third Way, a centrist think tank, according to a person involved in planning the meeting.
But Mr. Sanders and his supporters have continued to seek out victory on their own terms — so far with little success — by venturing into party chair races, primaries and long-shot special elections that establishment Democrats have avoided. The biggest test so far of Mr. Sanders’s clout may come on Tuesday in Virginia, where he has backed Tom Perriello, a liberal former congressman, in a contested primary for governor.
Still, even some Democrats competing in difficult elections have taken up ideas once associated with the hard left. Doug Applegate, a retired Marine colonel who narrowly lost a race last year to Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, said he would endorse single-payer health care in a new bid for Mr. Issa’s affluent coastal district.
“Single payer has become a moral issue,” Mr. Applegate said, adding he would be delighted to campaign with Mr. Sanders.
Others are warier: Representative Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the party should give “some leeway” to candidates to match the politics of their districts. Mr. Cleaver said he recently ran into former Representative John Barrow of Georgia, one of the last moderate, white Democrats elected from the South, and recalled telling him: “We’ll know that we’re on the winning track when you can get back to Congress.”
“We are going to lose every possible winnable seat, in a year where there are many winnable seats, if we come across as inflexible left-wingers,” Mr. Cleaver said. “I respect Bernie — I just don’t think we can become the party of Bernie.”
In Mr. Ossoff’s district, there was little evidence that voters yearned for a harder-edged liberal message. At an early-vote rally on Friday, Paul Flexner, an educator and Democratic activist in Dunwoody, said Mr. Ossoff had been wise to avoid Sanders-style politics.
Though Mr. Flexner, 71, called himself “the liberal guy” among his neighbors, he said that political approach simply did not work in the district.
“People are tired of the ideologues,” he said. “A lot of people, particularly in this area, did not like Bernie Sanders because of that kind of attitude. They didn’t like Hillary Clinton.”
Anne Easterly, a consultant who attended an Ossoff event in a well-tended park, said she hoped Democrats would take a lesson from Georgia about how to channel partisan energy into difficult races.
“It’s our only hope to find moderates — who can appeal to moderates and Republicans who are not Trumpians — just because of the way the districts are drawn now,” she said.
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