The high stakes of Georgia’s special election for an open House seat show no signs of letting up as the final two candidates race to the finish line with less than 60 days to go.
Democrat Jon Ossoff narrowly failed to win a majority of the vote in the 6th District last week and avoid a runoff, dashing Democratic hopes of turning the race into an immediate rebuke of President Trump. Still, his campaign is keeping up the momentum that helped make the traditionally red district competitive, raising $500,000 one day after the primary.
Meanwhile, Republican Karen Handel, whose second-place finish in the primary earned her the runoff spot opposite Ossoff, quickly consolidated support from her previously divided party in an effort to fend off a major upset in the conservative suburban Atlanta district.
Democrats didn’t get the outcome they hoped for last Tuesday: Ossoff fell just 2 percentage points short of an outright win and now faces a steeper climb in the June 20 runoff for the seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
Ossoff, a 30-year-old investigative filmmaker, finished far ahead of any other candidate, but more people ultimately cast a vote for one of the 11 Republicans running than they did for Ossoff and the four other Democrats. Ossoff’s campaign hired more than 100 full-time staffers and spent nearly $2 million on field efforts.
Looking toward the runoff, the campaign said it will continue to hire dozens of new staffers and put precinct captains in all 209 precincts.
“In the next two months, our precinct captain program, neighbor-to-neighbor contact and house party efforts will redouble, allowing our community-driven campaign to talk to even more Democrats, independents and of course Republicans who are unsatisfied with their party’s nominee,” said Sacha Haworth, an Ossoff campaign spokeswoman.
Beyond fundraising and field operations, Ossoff is moving more to the middle to sway independents and Republicans he’ll need in the runoff after months of Republican attacks that framed him as a Democratic stooge close to Washington and Hollywood.
Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) appeared to deliver Ossoff a blow last week when he said he didn’t know whether Ossoff is a progressive. But Ossoff brushed off the slight, and Sanders later endorsed him — although the former Democratic presidential candidate still didn’t call Ossoff a progressive.
“To the degree he can move to the middle and sustain a positive message, that will be helpful,” said Richard Barke, a political science professor at Georgia Tech.
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Unlike Ossoff, Handel didn’t have a unified base in the primary. That left outside groups mostly attacking Ossoff or bashing rival GOP candidates instead of boosting her own chances. But as the nominee, Handel has seen Republicans rally around her in a fundraising push that proves promising as she tries to keep pace with Ossoff’s own booming campaign account. Handel’s campaign raised about $1 million in the week since the primary.
Handel’s fiercest Republican opponent in the primary, Bob Gray, quickly conceded the race and endorsed Handel.
Nationally known Republicans have also backed Handel. Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won’t support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here’s why Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.) plans to hit the trail, while Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote The Hill’s Morning Report – Trump’s public standing sags after Floyd protests GOP senators introduce resolution opposing calls to defund the police MORE (R-Texas) sent out a fundraising pitch on her behalf.
“The unification of the party was not a foregone conclusion a month ago,” said Heath Garrett, the former chief of staff to Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonJon Ossoff to challenge David Perdue after winning Georgia Democratic primary Candidates headed to runoffs in Georgia House race to replace Doug Collins Justice Department closing stock investigations into Loeffler, Inhofe, Feinstein MORE (R-Ga.), who used to represent the 6th District.
“The coalescing around Karen Handel has been a pleasant surprise to those of us on the ground, that it happened so quickly.”
But Handel’s biggest cheerleader might be Trump, who called to congratulate her and even took some credit for the runoff on Twitter. He also did a fundraising pitch for Handel, although it remains to be seen what kind of presence he’ll have over the next two months.
Handel, 55, had largely distanced herself from Trump. Now she must accomplish a tricky balancing act: energizing pro-Trump voters in her base while also keeping Trump at arm’s length in a district he only won by 2 percentage points.
When asked if Handel wanted Trump to campaign, the candidate said that she wanted “all hands on deck”
“She’s got to carefully articulate her disagreement with style, and if there is an issue or two where she wants to distinguish herself from the president or a Cabinet member, she has a little bit of room there,” Garrett said.
Less than a week after the primary, the campaigns, the campaign committees and outside groups have all kept up the heat on their respective opponents. And on Monday, Ossoff’s campaign challenged Handel to face off in six debates before June 20.
Handel already targeted Ossoff over his Hollywood ties in primary season ads — attacks that the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership that has already spent $3 million against Ossoff, echoed in its own recent ad.
The National Republican Congressional Committee also went up with a runoff ad, with the committee’s independent expenditure increasing its ad buy on broadcast and cable to $250,000.
Democrats argue that drawing more national attention to the race will help Ossoff by making the election a referendum on the unpopular Trump, but Handel’s campaign is not concerned about the extra attention.
“We welcome [Ossoff] being put on the national stage because he has no real substance or experience behind him,” said Kate Constantini, a Handel spokeswoman. “His resume compared to Karen’s is a single page in a manila folder. We welcome the spotlight.”
Democrats are bringing back the same attacks that Handel’s GOP opponents made against her during the primary, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee labeling Handel a “career politician” who takes advantage of taxpayer-funded perks in its six-figure ad buy. Handel, a former Georgia secretary of State, unsuccessfully ran for governor and Senate.
The party also plans to focus on Handel’s 2012 resignation from the Susan G. Komen Foundation over her opposition to its Planned Parenthood funding, though some strategists say those kinds of pro-abortion rights attacks wouldn’t play as well in the conservative district.
“The fact is that Karen Handel is a career politician who has misused taxpayer dollars and used her position with the Susan G. Komen Foundation to go after Planned Parenthood,” Haworth said. “We are going to make sure voters are aware of her record.”
While the mantra during most congressional races is to keep the focus on local issues, Trump continues to loom large. Voters’ opinions of the president, negative or positive, could render all the ads and campaign strategies irrelevant.
“Trump’s behavior is somewhat unpredictable. … One statement or event just three days before the vote could be a determinative factor,” Barke said.
The race could be complicated by the still-undecided fate of ObamaCare. Trump has been determined to repeal and replace it, but the House GOP’s first attempt proved deeply unpopular nationally. With Price playing a significant role in those negotiations, the issue could have an outsized impact in his old district.
For both sides, the race looks set to hinge on voter enthusiasm. Republicans are still favored now that the party has one candidate, but Democrats are emboldened by their near-majority margin last Tuesday, hoping that a few more weeks of campaigning will push Ossoff into a historic upset.
“It’s not clear that the 6th District is a safe Republican district now. It may be,” Barke said. “Maybe the Ossoff turnout in April could have been a fluke. But that’s going to be up to the Democrats.”