Thu., August 9, 2012 3:00pm (EDT)

Longshots Fight Label and Odds
By Orlando Montoya
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Updated: 2 years ago

SAVANNAH, Ga.  —  
Lseli Messinger attends First Bryan Baptist Church. (photo Lesli Messinger Campaign)
Lseli Messinger attends First Bryan Baptist Church. (photo Lesli Messinger Campaign)
Church has just let out at Savannah's historically black First Bryan Baptist. The pastor stands in the door in long flowing robes. And next to him, shaking hands as people walk past, Lesli Messinger asks for prayers. She's running for Congress and will need them.

Messinger is running as a Democrat in Southeast Georgia's Republican-leaning 1st District, where GOP Congressman Jack Kingston hasn't faced a serious challenger in two decades.

"So many people have reached out to me," Messinger says. "Everywhere I go, I get people thanking me for being on their team."

But the Savannah antiques store owner will need more than praise to win in November. Kingston has won every election since first gaining office with no less than 66% of the vote. His campaign has millions of dollars more than hers, reality the Democrat blocks out.

"I ignore it, basically," she says. "I feel like saying that I'm a longshot takes away the potential that I know is there."

Messinger says, redistricting will help her win. The 1st District has more Democratic voters now. But the lines still look like they did when Kingston won in the 1990's. Savannah political consultant Dave Simons says, candidates running from behind run on faith.

"Most longshots believe they actually can win," Simons says. That's the difference between insiders and outsiders."

He says, he's worked with many underdogs over the years. One common thread they have is a deep, abiding belief in their message.

"The problem they seem to forget is that you might have a message," Simons says. "And quite frankly, it might be a good message. But if the message doesn't have the money backing to put it on air, to get it to the voters, then nobody hears it."

Messinger's message is about the incumbent's record. She says, Kingston doesn't represent the district well. If you change party and opponent, it sounds a lot like Chris Vaughn's message. He's the GOP candidate in the heavily Democratic 4th District around Atlanta.

"Everybody in the 4th considers anybody who is not a Democrat a longshot," Vaughn says. "I still feel strongly about it. I still believe that 2012 is an incredible year to run against Hank Johnson."

Messinger and Vaughn say, incumbents are vulnerable because of Congress' historically low approval ratings. Vaugn doesn't have much cash. But he says, that makes him freer to remain true to his conservative values.

"It probably does give me more opportunity and liberty to fire away and to be more of who I am and say what I want to say," he says.

And every once in a while, a longshot wins. Sonny Perdue was outspent 7 to 1 in his 2002 gubernatorial race. Polls showed him 11 points behind leading up to the vote.

"So many people, everywhere I would go, would say, 'Sonny, I'm going to vote for you, my family's going to vote for you, but you need to understand, you don't have a chance,'" Perdue says. "And frankly, I began to take encouragement from that. I said, 'Well, if they vote for me and their family votes for me, I might have a chance!'"

Perdue became the first Republican Governor in Georgia in 134 years. Across the state, despite voter anger against Congress, Georgians likely will return at least 12 of their incumbents to Washington. Only one is in real danger - Democrat John Barrow, running in a competitive East Georgia district recently redrawn to favor the GOP. An open seat in North Georgia also favors Republicans.