President Donald Trump only carried Georgia’s 6th District by a point and a half last fall. But that’s not stopping multiple Republicans from wrapping their arms around him in the upcoming special election to replace newly confirmed Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
Bruce LeVell, executive director of Trump’s National Diversity Coalition, and technology executive Bob Gray are vying to become the first Trump loyalists elected to Congress during his administration. Republican committeemen picked the establishment candidate over a Trump campaign staffer in last week’s nominating convention for Kansas’s 4th District.
But in a district that went so narrowly for Trump, with nine other Republicans in the race, Levell and Gray may split the votes of Trump supporters, precluding either of them from advancing beyond the April 18 jungle primary.
Candidate qualifying closed Wednesday afternoon, leaving a field of 18, including 5 Democrats. If none of them receives 50 percent of the vote in the primary, the top two vote-getters will face off in a June runoff.
This suburban Atlanta district is a reliably Republican one at the congressional level. Price won re-election by 23 points last fall.
The 6th District’s close presidential result — a reflection of Trump’s underperformance in more affluent, well-educated suburbs nationwide — was enough to put it on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s initial target list.
But neither LeVell nor Gray see running with Trump as a political risk. Instead, they’re trying to one-up each other’s loyalty to the president, whose popularity has sagged since he took office.
LeVell’s Trump surrogacy boosted his profile from onetime Gwinnett County GOP chairman to a cable TV figure. He was one of a handful of African-American Trump delegates at the Republican National Convention.
“I was honored to be a surrogate for Donald Trump, campaigning for his vision to Make America Great Again for the entire 2016 election, through thick and thin,” LeVell said in a statement announcing his candidacy.
Gray originally supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, but in an interview last week, he said he quickly got on the Trump train when the New York businessman secured the GOP nomination. The Johns Creek city councilman claimed to have been “the only visible proponent of Trump in the district.”
That’s wrong, LeVell said Wednesday. He said he got the Sandy Springs Trump office off the ground — “I supplied the tables and the couches.”
“I’ve never seen Bob Gray in my life on the trail,” he added. “It’s disrespectful to try to piggyback on something.”
Gray has his own Trump connections. His general consultant Brandon Phillips directed Trump’s Georgia campaign until resigning a month before the election after local news reports revealed his criminal past.
“I actually have a personal relationship with the president,” LeVell countered. “We text,” he said of his relationship with the president’s staff. Asked whether the administration had committed to help him in the primary, LeVell would only say, “They know every move that’s going on.”
While Gray praises LeVell’s experience operating a jewelry store, he thinks his international business experience sets him apart. (Not to mention that his career allows him to self-fund.)
Gray was the first candidate on the air, debuting a six-figure cable TV spot on Monday called “Outsider.” It’s peppered with Trump refrains about draining the swamp and making America great again.
LeVell claims the mantle of the small businessman, whose family was affected by the housing crisis and economic collapse. “All of these bumps and bruises, I actually felt personally,” LeVell said. “I have a razor, razor sharp ax to grind,” he said.
“You need a congressman who can literally walk over with a bat to the FDIC and say, ‘What are you doing?’” he said.
Neither candidate is bothered by anything Trump has done so far in office, but both suggested they have a different style of speaking.
Gray name-drops Perdue, the state’s junior senator, even more than he mentions Trump. But Perdue loyalists have rallied behind former state Sen. Dan Moody, who entered the race earlier this week.
The Trump factor
Eleven Republicans are running. Former state Sen. Judson Hill starts with the endorsement of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who once held this seat. Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel begins as the likely front-runner. A political ally of Price’s, she ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010 and for the Senate in 2014, losing in the Republican primaries both times.
Those other candidates aren’t likely to embrace Trump quite so tightly.
“My guess is everyone else is going to choose their words about this president very carefully,” said Chip Lake, a Republican consultant in Georgia. “They don’t want to alienate his supporters, but they don’t want to wrap both their arms around him either.”
Since special elections tend to turn out the conservative base, Trump loyalists might represent a bigger percentage of the electorate.
“I think they’re going to want to see these candidates pledge their support for a lot of what he’s done already and what he says he wants to do,” Lake said.
This race will be an eight-week sprint. But if the first three-and-half weeks of the Trump presidency are any indication, that’s an eternity in which the significance of claiming loyalty to Trump could change.
“It’s to be determined,” Lake said.