ROSWELL, Ga. — In a tiny manager’s office at the back of the kitchen of an Italian family restaurant here, Republican Bob Gray explained that he never would have run for Congress if it weren’t for Donald Trump.
“If this was any other year or we didn’t have the kind of president that we have, I would not have run,” Gray said. “I recognized if Trump is one thing, he is a disrupter. And if you want significant change, you need a leader who is able to disrupt.”
Like Trump, Gray considers himself a disrupter. He’s a businessman, he said, whose only prior elected office was to the City Council of the Atlanta suburb of Johns Creek. Like Trump, he added, he was an outsider who wasn’t part of the establishment. Even his slogan was cribbed from Trump: “America First. Conservative Always.”
That didn’t do much for Gray in Tuesday night’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, however.
In a district Trump had carried by just 1.5 percentage points last year, Gray had banked on just enough pro-Trump Republicans to carry him into a runoff with Democrat Jon Ossoff. With the GOP vote split between 11 Republican candidates, it wasn’t an entirely wild idea, but as midnight approached on Tuesday, it became clear that it was just a fantasy.
Instead, the evening would go to Karen Handel, who appeared headed to a runoff with Ossoff early Wednesday.
For most Republican voters in the 6th District, Trump loyalty has become a matter of begrudging party loyalty. It’s a delicate dance, and Handel found a way to do it best.
She didn’t ape Trump’s slogan or paste photos of the president on her campaign headquarter walls or have supporters wave Trump signs at a campaign rally the way Gray did, but she paid lip service to the Trump agenda. She went so far as to list Trump’s border wall on her website as a key policy proposal, but she did it without actually mentioning the president by name.
“Do I support the president? Absolutely,” she said in an interview. “But my job, if I have the privilege of being the next congressman, is not to be an extension of the White House. It is to be the best representative.”
When more than half of unofficial returns had come in, Gray’s share of the vote was below 10 percent. Gray had been projected to get around 15 percent, within striking distance of Handel, the Republican front-runner. It didn’t happen.
By then, Gray’s campaign manager, Tyler Jacobs, had moved from the “war room”— a single laptop surrounded by a black curtain — to the bar. Gray was preparing to make his remarks. His supporters seemed deflated.
“I’m not ready to say it’s over yet,” Gray said, but he knew it was. And so did his supporters. So he implored them, “We’ve got to rally behind Karen Handel.”
No one cheered; there was no applause for party unity. And why should there be? For at least some of Gray’s most hardcore supporters, they had supported him specifically because of his love for Trump.
“He’s willing to support the president, and I voted for the president,” said Brittany Evrard, a 27 year-old substitute teacher from Fulton County who volunteered for both Trump and Gray.
Handel might like Trump fine, supporters like Evrard figured, but she wasn’t like Gray. She wasn’t, as he’d say, a disrupter. But she was the choice of more 6th District Republicans than any other candidate.