The special election in Georgia next month could be a referendum on President Trump’s popularity. Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democrat with a sizeable war chest, is contesting Atlanta’s suburban Sixth District, which until a few weeks ago was represented by Representative Tom Price, now secretary of health and human services.
“Any other election year in the Sixth wouldn’t be worth people’s time—this one is,” says Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, vice chair of recruitment for the Georgia Democratic Party and one of the first to speak with Ossoff about joining the race.
The Sixth District is the epicenter of state Republican politics. It was once represented by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and current Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried the Sixth by more than 20 points, as did John McCain in 2008. Yet, last November, Hillary Clinton lost the district by just under 2 points.
Ossoff, an investigative filmmaker and former aide to Georgia Representative Hank Johnson, is one of 18 candidates, including four other Democrats. The primary is a free-for-all, in which the top two vote-getters advance to the runoff, regardless of party. Most analysts expect Ossoff to finish first or second April 18, and make the likely run-off on June 20. The Republican field boasts well-known candidates, including former Secretary of State Karen Handel and former State Senators Dan Moody and Judson Hill.
Terry believes Ossoff can better appeal to the moderate Republicans that suburban Atlanta is known for. The district is one of the most affluent in Georgia, sprawling from northern Fulton and DeKalb counties to eastern Cobb, which was turned from ruby-red to blue in 2016 by Clinton—the first Democratic presidential candidate to win there since Jimmy Carter.
Nationally, only 36 percent of white, college-educated voters approve of Trump’s job performance so far, according to Pew Research Center. The Sixth District is majority white and nearly 60 percent of its population over 25 has a bachelor’s degree or higher. Those moderate Republicans that the Clinton camp cultivated during the election were too few in Michigan or Ohio, but plentiful in places like Cobb County, Georgia.
Since his announcement, Ossoff has gained the endorsements of his former employers, Georgia Representatives Lewis and Johnson, as well as the liberal group Democracy for America. Ossoff’s campaign claims to have raised nearly $2 million in just a few weeks, an incredible amount for a nascent politician. He has also received fundraising help from liberal blog Daily Kos, which has raised more than $1 million for the Ossoff campaign through small donations.
Some observers are skeptical. “It’s kind of a mirage,” says Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist. Swint believes the surprisingly high Clinton vote in November came from Georgia’s large Never Trump movement, rather than actual support for the Democrat, and that voters will fall behind a Republican in the special election as they have for decades.
In the case of a showdown between a Democrat and a Republican in the runoff, the Republican “might want keep an arm's length distance from Trump,” says University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “Dissatisfaction for Trump could leak down into the special election,” but Republicans "will really have to drop the ball to lose.”
Even if the Democrat is narrowly defeated, making substantial inroads in this Republican bastion would invigorate Democrats going into 2018. “The groundswell of energy is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” says Rebecca DeHart, executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party. “The 2018 elections are wide open. The Sixth is the first piece in a larger puzzle.”
Terry, who worked on the staff of former Georgia Representative John Barrow, likens the current political climate to the Tea Party wave election in 2010. “Pendulums swing and the electorate can make a difference,” he says. “This time next year, just about every seat held by Republicans in Georgia will likely have a Democrat in the running.”
That’s a lot of spots to fill. In 2016, Democrats didn’t file a candidate to run in over half of Georgia House and state Senate races. Meanwhile, four GOP congressional incumbents cruised unopposed to re-election. Georgia Democrats don’t need a win in the Sixth as much as they need the motivation to start fighting again across the state. Donald Trump and the special election have provided it.
“Georgia is on its way to becoming a blue or purple state faster than expected,” says Charles Bullock. “The challenge for Democrats will be to hold interest beyond this special election till 2018.”
Democrats are doing their part to make this race about Trump, hoping to enliven their electorate, and moderate Republicans are doing their best to keep his name out of the conversation. A nightmare scenario for Republicans would be a primary so bitter that they couldn’t consolidate support for the winner afterward. Another would be the top three Republican candidates splitting an even chunk of the vote, and a Trump loyalist like technology executive Bob Gray sneaking into the runoff, which could put off moderate Republicans and galvanize Democratic voters.
Tom Price has won the district handily since he was first elected in 2004, outspending his Democratic opponents by more than $7 million in the last four elections alone, according to OpenSecrets. But the last election was Price’s smallest victory yet, dropping 5 points from his 2014 margin, and it was against a Democratic candidate that spent virtually nothing on the campaign trail. He didn’t even have a website.
“I don’t think the race would be getting nearly as much attention if Republicans weren’t worried,” says DeHart. She may have a point. Earlier this week, a Republican super PAC announced plans to launch a million-dollar attack ad campaign in the Sixth, trying to bloody Ossoff before the April primary. Ossoff has released a trio of his own ads, two of which target Trump for impulsive and reckless behavior.
The low turnout typically associated with special elections normally skews in favor of Republicans, but organization and messaging still remain defining factors. “In a special election, the advantage goes to name identification, a sizeable war chest, and boots on the ground,” says Kerwin Swint.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which included the Sixth in its list of districts to target, is paying to send nine staffers, according to The Washington Post, and Georgia Democrats are pounding the pavement throughout the district like never before. “We have been overwhelmed with energy and volunteers,” says DeHart. “We’re not going to leave any vote unturned.”