Politics

All Eyes on Turnout in Georgia Special Election

Jon Ossoff thinks outright victory on Tuesday is ‘within reach’

Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff speaks to campaign volunteers Monday before they head out to canvass the 6th District, one day before the special election. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ROSWELL, Ga. — Morning rain showers with scattered afternoon thunderstorms. That’s the forecast for Election Day in the House district that’s set for one of the most closely watched special elections ever. 

In the final hours of the race to fill Georgia’s 6th District seat, only one thing mattered to the leading candidates: turnout. 

Addressing a boisterous crowd here Monday night, Democrat Jon Ossoff’s campaign manager told volunteers the election could come down to a recount. If they didn’t need to sleep that night, they shouldn’t, he said. Heading for the door with campaign literature to distribute, some volunteers picked up flashlights.

After months of increasing national scrutiny, it’s finally time for voters to hit the polls for what’s likely to be just the first of two elections to fill the open seat left behind by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Democrats in the district, though, are hoping that Tuesday’s election will be it, and that Ossoff, the insurgent liberal in the race, will crest 50 percent of the vote, winning the 18-candidate open primary outright and eliminating the need for a June runoff. 

“I think I can win,” Ossoff said Monday about his chances of winning outright. “Whether I do is up to turnout and the voters," he said, adding, "We’re within striking distance.”

If no candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will advance to the runoff. 

President Donald Trump campaigned against Ossoff in the race’s final days, saying “a runoff will be a win” on Monday night and urging them to “force a runoff” on Tuesday morning.

In a robocall made to voters Monday, Trump told them that “Liberal Democrats from outside of Georgia are spending millions and millions of dollars trying to take your Republican congressional seat away from you.”

Ossoff, he said, would “raise your taxes, destroy your health care, and flood our country with illegal immigrants.”

Most polls have Ossoff in the low to mid-40s; no poll has him edging 50 percent. So the more pressing question on everyone’s minds here is which of four Republicans will come in second and how that person will shape what’s likely to evolve into an even more nationalized Democrat versus Republican runoff. 

Ossoff's rally the night before the special election in Roswell, Ga. (Simone Pathé/CQ Roll Call)
Ossoff's rally the night before the special election in Roswell, Ga. (Simone Pathé/CQ Roll Call)

On Monday, the four leaders among the pack of 11 GOP candidates were mostly making last-minute phone calls and campaign stops. Like Ossoff, they were focused on turning out their base supporters. But with the GOP vote splintered so many different ways, they’ve had a much harder job. 

Six or seven different campaign signs compete for space on the same street corners in this heavily suburban district, and ads from candidates and outside groups fill every radio and TV commercial break.

The candidates and their staff are used to a heavy media presence by now, with one GOP campaign showing off a wall at its headquarters as the spot where The New York Times took photos.

A very special election

This is not normal for a House election, let alone a special election in April in an off-year.

In a Sunday tweet, Trump criticized the media’s attention on the race. And yet, this race would never have captured national attention if it weren’t for the president, specifically his underperformance in this district last fall. Trump carried it by less than 2 points, while Price won re-election by 23 points. Four years earlier, Republican Mitt Romney also carried it by 23 points. 

As the first special election in a district with such a narrow presidential margin, this primary was supposed to be the first referendum on Trump’s presidency. 

But this time last week, Republicans were panicking about a special election in a much redder district in Kansas. The National Republican Congressional Committee spent nearly $100,000 to shore up the race, and still, the GOP candidate only won by 7 points in a district Trump carried by 27 points in November.

Unlike in Kansas, the Democratic energy here has been palpable for months. Stories abound of liberal voters coming out of the closet, planting Ossoff signs in their front lawns.

Nationally, Ossoff has become a vessel for the left’s discontent with Trump. The 30-year-old former Hill staffer raised more than $8 million in the first three months of the year, most of it from outside the district, and he’s had Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee staffers on the ground helping him build an infrastructure to invest that money. 

From the start, his ads have made it clear whom he’s running against. One memorable spot shows him silently tweeting on his phone, while the characters show up on screen. “I’ll stand up to Donald Trump,” he types. 

But Ossoff touts his campaign as a coalition that extends beyond party, deflecting any credit on Monday for the movement that’s been built around him. He mentioned several times how women in the community are leading it.

Republicans acknowledge that energy, but they’re quick to dismiss Ossoff, saying his resonance doesn’t reflect this district’s true colors, especially in a runoff.

“The Democrats somehow think they’re going to come in and steal the seat, but the 6th District is a solidly Republican district,” said former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, one of the leading Republican contenders to finish second.

Republican Karen Handel speaks with diners during a campaign stop Monday at Rhea’s restaurant in Roswell, Ga. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Republican Karen Handel speaks with diners during a campaign stop Monday at Rhea’s restaurant in Roswell, Ga. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Handel was greeting voters at a local burger joint on Monday, many of whom already wore her campaign stickers. Her numbers show her backers tend to be “rock solid” in their support; it’s just about making sure they come out to vote, she said. 

About 30 minutes away, former state Sen. Judson Hill sat in his campaign office across from large maps of each of the counties in the district, ready for a day of making calls. He was cool and confident, hardly skipping a beat when a brief power outage blackened the room. His team believes the well-funded special election to fill his state Senate seat, also occurring on Tuesday, will help boost turnout in the part of the district where he has the biggest name recognition. 

Although the Republican Party can’t pick a candidate, different outside groups and surrogates have rallied around their favorites. The Club for Growth has backed Johns Creek city Councilman Bob Gray, another strong contender to finish second. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (who held this seat for 20 years) are behind Hill, while Sen. David Perdue endorsed former state Sen. Dan Moody. Former Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Ending Spending Action Fund, an establishment-friendly Republican super PAC, endorsed Handel. 

The Trump factor

And then there’s Trump, who hasn’t made an endorsement in the race. Despite the president’s lack of legislative accomplishments and the failure of the health care bill for which he lobbied, GOP candidates here have a hard time finding fault with him.

And it’s not just the original self-described Trump loyalists, like Gray or Bruce LeVell, the executive director of Trump’s diversity coalition, who feel that way. 

Handel has said that she wouldn’t hesitate to speak out against the president. But on Monday, she said she hadn’t yet seen any areas where she disagrees with him. That morning, she rolled out an endorsement from a friend of 20 years, who also happens to have been the Georgia chairwoman of Trump’s campaign. 

But Trump almost lost the district. “He won,” Handel said. “He won it.”

Hill couldn’t point to any disagreements with Trump either.

“Messaging, sometimes,” he said.

But then he added, “Shoot, I’d like to improve some of the things I’ve said,” softening what could have been perceived as a critique of the president. 

Without even much difference of opinion about a controversial president separating them, the potential GOP second-place finishers now have to trust the voters to show up and express their preference. 

“Nothing’s over until you get your people out to vote and the polls close,” Handel said.

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