SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. — It’s finally here. Voters go to the polls Tuesday in the most expensive House race in the country.
In the final hours of the special election campaign in Georgia’s 6th District, both Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff are sticking to a variation of the same talking point: “It’s all about turnout.”
The day before the election, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was making stops with Handel, and former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander — widely seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party — was rallying Ossoff supporters.
While the nation is looking to the election as a bellwether for 2018, party strategists from both sides caution that this election is unique — both because of the money and national attention it’s garnered.
“I can honestly say, it’s been the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” Handel said of the race on Monday.
Polls have given Ossoff a narrow lead over Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, but that’s tightened in recent weeks, and since there’s no party registration in Georgia, it’s difficult to model turnout in a late June runoff that’s already defied turnout expectations for a special election.
One liberal group involved is preparing for a win, a loss or a recount. Both sides say Tuesday’s going to be a late night.
The spending on this race has been astronomical, approaching $60 million. Republicans have attacked Ossoff for raising millions of dollars from outside the district.
“A squirrel is gonna get a pretty decent percentage of the vote if he has $30 million behind him,” Handel said Monday in reference to the Democrat’s competitiveness in a district that has long been a GOP stronghold.
But Handel has also benefited from millions of dollars in outside spending from super PACs such as the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is backed by House GOP leadership.
The local TV station had to add an extra evening news broadcast to accommodate all the ads.
But in the last few days of the race, it’s been a five-figure buy that’s generated the most buzz here. Both candidates condemned the ad from a conservative PAC that invoked last week’s shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise at the Republicans’ baseball practice and tried to tie the violence to the “unhinged left” and Ossoff.
Asked about the ad on Monday, Handel said, “Yeah, it should come down, absolutely.”
Rallying the troops
An Ossoff field office in Sandy Springs smelled of sunscreen Monday afternoon as volunteers prepared to hit the streets.
Outside, an Ossoff bus stood waiting to transport them.
The old school bus belongs to Hugh Glidewell of Roswell, who used it to tailgate at the University of Georgia, where his daughters went to school. He’s since had its red and black exterior repainted red and blue.
Diane Wilkes of Sandy Springs said she showed up to canvass Monday because “the world is watching.”
“Our lives changed on Nov. 9,” said Wilkes, a Democrat.
Uma Palam Pulendran, 47, from Johns Creek, came out on Monday afternoon, too.
“I had to push myself to go and meet Ossoff the first time,” the Democrat said. She recalled being one of the first Asian-Americans who showed up to offer her support for the 30-year-old first-time candidate earlier this year. Not anymore. There’s now an active “Asian Americans for Ossoff” group.
But this kind of engagement is new for Pulendran. Never before has she been so publicly out with her politics.
Handel spent Monday meeting and greeting voters at restaurants across the district.
“It looks good,” Handel said, as she paused in front of one table at the Old Hickory House in Tucker. It’s unclear whether she was referring to the food on the patron’s plate or her election prospects, or both.
She stopped at every table to remind customers to vote.
“It’s helpful that she lives in the district,” said a 59-year-old woman from DeKalb County who preferred not to share her name. (Ossoff lives just outside the district, where his fiancee is attending medical school at Emory.)
The Ossoff campaign had contacted her many times — too many times, she said. She even received texts offering to pay for an Uber to take her to the polls.
She already voted for Handel, she said, because “she’s more mainstream” and “she's been around a long time.” After serving as secretary of state, Handel ran unsuccessfully for both governor and Senate.
Another Handel supporter at the Old Hickory House is hopeful, but not completely confident, that the GOP nominee will win.
“I’m a little worried because I think she made a late charge,” Tommy Banks, 72, said. He said he didn't see many signs or TV ads from her at first.
And he's been surprised at how Ossoff has caught on.
“After he almost won that first go-around, that shocked me,” Banks said.
A temporary reprieve?
Residents of the 6th District are ready for this special election to be over.
But whichever way it goes, it might not be long before the 2018 race takes off.
Asked whether they’d run again if they don’t win this week, neither Handel nor Ossoff gave a straight answer. Handel said she refused to think beyond Tuesday right now; Ossoff said he’d have to talk it over with his fiancee. “It’s a long way away,” Ossoff told reporters Sunday. But he admitted it’s coming: “Whoever wins will be right into the re-elect, no doubt.”