The first hyper-competitive congressional race of President Donald Trump’s tenure in office has both Democrats and Republicans zeroed in Tuesday on a Georgia district that has been under GOP control for roughly 40 years.
The race is swamped with candidates. A grand total of 18 choices are facing voters Tuesday. Among them are 11 Republicans, five Democrats, and two independents, all fighting to win the seat that was held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
Of the special elections to fill seats vacated by Trump appointees, Georgia has become Democrats’ best chance of swinging one. The Democratic candidate who looks poised to make a strong charge is Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker and former congressional aide.
Ossoff has raised an unheralded amount of cash for the race, capitalising on anti-Trump fervor among liberal donors. In just three months, he has raised a whopping $US8.3 million, vastly more than most candidates running in major statewide races. Ossoff’s fundraising haul was more than any member of Congress had raised over a two-year period since 2012 other than House Speaker Paul Ryan and former House Speaker John Boehner.
Still, the race remains an uphill battle for Ossoff, who is running in a district that has been entrenched in the red since former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won his first election in 1978. Ossoff and the large field of candidates are competing Tuesday in what’s known as a jungle primary. All candidates run on one ballot for the election, and if no candidate clears 50%, the top two will participate in a runoff election on June 20.
With Republicans failing to coalesce around one candidate, Ossoff is running away with the primary in polls, garnering support in the mid-40s. But a recent Emerson College poll found that when polled against just one candidate in the runoff election, he trailed slightly against the four Republicans who are considered most likely to emerge from the primary as his opponent: Karen Handel, Bob Grey, Judson Hill, and Dan Moody.
And Republicans, taking the threat of an Ossoff victory seriously, have pulled out all the stops in attempting to stop the Democrat from hitting 50% support on Tuesday. The GOP views the Georgia race as the most competitive of the four special congressional elections set to take place this year to fill seats vacated by Trump appointments.
“You see $US8.3 million, that’s a significant chunk that somebody can run in their district,” said one GOP operative familiar with the race. “Essentially, that’s what somebody usually raises for a statewide campaign, not an off-year, early special election.”
The operative added that he hadn’t seen anything resembling that level of fundraising in past special elections.
“It is a large amount of money from out-of-state donors who are clearly very fired up about opposing Donald Trump,” the operative told Business Insider last week. “That’s very clear. The liberal base dislikes Donald Trump.”
In addition to being well-funded, Ossoff is also heavily staffed. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent eight staffers to Georgia in March to help his election efforts, bringing his total to 70 paid staffers and 2,000 volunteers. The Democratic National Committee’s bylaws mandate that the organisation stay neutral during the primary, but the committee is prepared to deploy staffers and high-profile surrogates to the district for Ossoff if he finds himself in a head-to-head runoff.
With deep pockets funded overwhelmingly by out-of-state liberal donors eager to score a Trump-inspired victory, Ossoff is the most recognised Democrat. But many of the Republicans on the ballot have done little to separate themselves from the others.
“Not only is it a special election, but in Georgia it’s a ‘jungle primary,’ where you have a dozen Republican candidates and you really only have one Democratic candidate because he’s consolidated all of the support,” the GOP operative said, adding that he believed the candidate’s “floor” was a percentage in the mid-to-high 40s.
“For all intents and purposes, he’s the only Democrat running,” he said. “With all of that money to be put into ads, he’s the only one they’re hearing about.”
In last fall’s election, Price beat his Democratic challenger, Rodney Stooksbury, 62% to 38%. But Democrats are hoping that antipathy toward Trump, who won the state by a slimmer 51%-to-46% margin, can help turn the tide in the district.
Republicans have attempted to paint Ossoff as a “far left” candidate who would be more loyal to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — an unpopular name in the district — than to local voters. Republicans have pushed a series of ads claiming that Ossoff misrepresented some of his past foreign-policy experience while working on Capitol Hill.
Another detractor that Republicans have hit Ossoff on is that he does not live within the district, and is even unable to vote for himself Tuesday as a result.
Asked about this by CNN on Tuesday morning, Ossoff said he did not live in the district because he was supporting his girlfriend’s career.
“I’m a mile and a half down the street to support Alicia while she finishes medical school,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been very transparent about. In fact, I’m proud to be supporting her career.”
“As soon as she finishes her medical training, I’ll be 10 minutes back up the road into the district where I grew up,” he continued.
Additionally, Republicans are making a larger investment in the Georgia race than in the other three races.
“We’re obviously monitoring all of it closely, some closer than others,” the GOP operative said. “We’ve obviously made a greater investment in Georgia than we have in Montana or Kansas, and then South Carolina as well.”
Trump gets involved
The election is being billed as a referendum on the early months of the Trump presidency, and Trump has gotten fairly involved in the race as it entered its final days. Although he did not express support for any of the 11 Republicans running individually, he encouraged Republican voters to “vote R” on Tuesday in a Monday tweet.
“The super Liberal Democrat in the Georgia Congressioal [sic] race tomorrow wants to protect criminals, allow illegal immigration and raise taxes!” Trump tweeted on Monday.
“Democrat Jon Ossoff would be a disaster in Congress,” the president tweeted Tuesday, “VERY weak on crime and illegal immigration, bad for jobs and wants higher taxes. Say NO.”
These messages followed a tweet from Trump on Sunday night, when he mentioned media coverage of both the Georgia election and the recent special election in Kansas’ 4th Congressional District. In the Kansas contest, Republican Ron Estes beat Democrat James Thompson by 7 points last week in a district where then-Rep. Mike Pompeo — now Trump’s CIA director — won by more than 30 points just last fall.
“The recent Kansas election (Congress) was a really big media event, until the Republicans won,” Trump wrote. “Now they play the same game with Georgia-BAD!”
Ossoff responded to Trump’s Monday tweet, calling the president “misinformed.”
“While I’m glad the president is interested in the race, he is misinformed,” he said in a statement. “I’m focused on bringing fresh leadership, accountability, and bipartisan problem-solving to Washington to cut wasteful spending and grow metro Atlanta’s economy into the Silicon Valley of the South.”
Trump fired off a total of five tweets on the race, including two where he said that forcing a runoff election in June should be considered a win for the Republicans.
“With eleven Republican candidates running in Georgia (on Tuesday) for Congress, a runoff will be a win,” Trump tweeted late Monday. “Vote ‘R’ for lower taxes & safety!”
“Republicans must get out today and VOTE in Georgia 6,” he wrote Tuesday. “Force runoff and easy win! Dem Ossoff will raise your taxes-very bad on crime & 2nd A.”
And late on Monday, Republicans pushed out a robocall Trump recorded to voters in the district.
“Tomorrow there is a special election for Congress in Georgia,” the president said. “Only you can stop the super liberal Democrats and Nancy Pelosi’s group, and in particular, Jon Ossoff.”
“If you don’t vote tomorrow, Ossoff will raise your taxes, destroy your health care and flood our country with illegal immigrants,” he continued. “Liberal Democrats from outside of Georgia are spending millions of dollars trying to take your Republican Congressional seat away from you. Don’t let them do it.”
He claimed Democrats would be “taking your congressional seat and your money and your safety” if they won the seat.
With the huge swing in Kansas — where Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas all provided assistance to Estes — as a potential sign of things to come in the other special elections, there is major concern that the GOP base will be complacent after Trump’s victory, not turning out in needed numbers to win the seat.
“The energy we’ve seen, there’s been a slight downtick, which I think is natural coming off a very contentious election that we won,” the operative said, adding that the GOP had to get its voters “reengaged.”
Maxwell Tani and Peter Jacobs contributed to this report.
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