SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. — Republicans are white-knuckling their way through their party’s first major political tests under the Trump administration.
After the surprising close call in Kansas on Tuesday night, Republicans are now obsessing over a House special election in a slice of suburban Atlanta that has never been competitive before, where the GOP has spent millions to keep Democrats from capturing the district in an upset next week.
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It’s no sure bet for Republicans. An angry, energized Democratic base looking to send a message to Donald Trump has turned Jon Ossoff, a previously unknown former congressional aide, into one of the best-funded House candidates ever ahead of an all-party primary next Tuesday.
The money — more than $8.3 million in the first three months of 2017 — has allowed Ossoff to blanket the airwaves with TV ads and carpet the streets of the district with door-knockers turning out friendly voters, trying to win the district outright with a majority in the special primary. Meanwhile, a bevy of Republican candidates have fought amongst themselves.
To add to those jangling nerves, Georgia Republicans watched their colleagues in Kansas survive a 20-point swing toward Democrats in another special election Tuesday night. Kansas state Treasurer Ron Estes won his race by less than 7 percentage points in a district Trump carried by 27 in November.
Republicans don’t have that kind of room in Georgia: While past presidential nominees and state candidates have typically won Georgia’s 6th District by wide margins, Trump carried it by less than 2 points against Hillary Clinton.
“I’d be an idiot if those results in Kansas didn’t cause me and Republicans concern” in Georgia, said Justin Tomczak, a Republican political adviser and activist in the state. “It’s a wakeup call.”
But unlike in Kansas, Republicans in Georgia sounded the alarm several weeks ago, prompting $2 million in from the NRCC to help boost Republican turnout and counter Democrats’ energy. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with House leadership, also dumped in more than $2 million of its own money and dispatched on-the-ground staffers to the district.
Looming over everything is Trump. While the Washington-based outside groups are trying to stop Ossoff, local Republican campaigns are wondering how pro-Trump they need to be to win GOP voters at the moment. And Democrats are testing just how far backlash to the president can carry them. “Does it give a candidate superpowers?” said Todd Rehm, a Republican consultant in the state.
Trump is central to Ossoff’s chances — but the Democrat doesn’t actually invoke him often. His focus, Ossoff said, is on local economic development and running a positive campaign.
“The contrast with what’s happening in Washington is clear, it’s not necessary to invoke it at every campaign stop,” Ossoff said.
That’s because the Trump factor already looms large, especially among approximately 3,500 volunteers working for Ossoff to turn out like-minded voters.
“I think there are a lot of people who are disappointed with the president,” said Elaine Bradley, a 65-year-old woman who rallied with other volunteers outside of Dunwoody Library during early voting this week. “Trump’s the reason I’m here.”
Georgia’s special election rules are unusual: All candidates run in the same primary regardless of party. If no one reaches a majority, the top two finishers will meet head-to-head in a June runoff. But Ossoff is aiming to win outright on April 18 by getting at least 50 percent. To do so, he’ll need to dramatically boost turnout among Democrats, young people and women in this affluent, well-educated suburb. He’ll also need to cut into Independents.
And in an off-year, mid-spring special election, turnout is a wild card. Ossoff’s campaign, anchored by four field offices, said it has knocked on over 100,000 doors and made more than 100,000 phone calls. The DCCC also sent down nine staffers to aid field efforts.
The top four Republican campaigns — former Secretary of State Karen Handel, former state Sen. Dan Moody, Johns Creek City Councilman Bob Gray and state Sen. Judson Hill — have collectively knocked on a combined 80,000 doors and counting, according to totals shared with POLITICO.
Still, some Republicans believe the natural conservative lean of the district will show through by Tuesday.
“By Democrats pumping in money here, they’ve awakened the sleeping giant that is the Republican base in the district,” said Jason Shepherd, chairman of the Cobb County Republican Party. “There are not enough Democrats here to win, unless the Republican base doesn’t turn out, but now the base knows that they need to turn out.”
Others still remain concerned.
“If [Ossoff] is spending half of that $8 million on turnout, then that might be the ballgame. It’s going to be close, but jeez, if we lose that …” said one Republican operative who’s worked on the race. “You can’t just have an air war and have TV ads, you have to have a ground war and that will swing the race. If you can swing three points in a non-special general with ground game, you can swing it 15 points in a special election.”
Republican candidates, meanwhile, are battling amongst themselves with help from outside groups that were big spenders in GOP primary wars of past years.
The anti-tax Club for Growth, which endorsed Gray, has spent nearly half a million dollars targeting Handel — a well-known former statewide officeholder — and Moody, a big-spending self-funder who has gained traction in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, Ending Spending, a group founded by the megadonor Ricketts family, is answering the Club’s attacks in a $1.3 million ad campaign boosting Handel. And Hill, who has trailed in some public polling but whose constituents make up a good chunk of the congressional district, put out his own ad this week that attacked all three of his top opponents.
“The more and more that this thing goes negative, the more it depresses Republican turnout,” said Jim Kingston, a Republican operative and son of former Rep. Jack Kingston. “And this is going to come down to who turns out their voters.”
Republicans on the ground, including the candidates, insist that Democrats are “living in fantasy land” if they think they’re going to flip a district that once put former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and current Sen. Johnny Isakson to the national stage, said Moody.
But that hasn’t slowed the enthusiasm of Ossoff’s army of canvassers, who are busily seeking out potential supporters like Adrienne LoRay, an African-American woman who lives in Chamblee, a dogwood-lined suburb north of Atlanta.
“Oh, good! You’re finally here,” LoRay shouted as she met Ossoff canvassers at her door on Saturday afternoon.
“I’ve never put a sign out before,” LoRay said, adding that she doesn’t affiliate with either party and likes to vote for candidates from both sides. “But I’ve been trying to get a yard sign for two weeks.”
LoRay took two signs for her corner yard and sent a picture to her family, reminding them to vote.