CHAMBLEE, Ga. — Republicans had hoped Tuesday’s special election in Georgia’s wealthy and sleepy 6th Congressional District would be just like every other House race here since 1978: the mostly painless elevation of a rock-ribbed and polished conservative.
Those hopes have died. Now, this suburban swath north of Atlanta resembles the cracked mirror of the GOP’s national identity crisis, with 11 candidates bitterly feuding over what it means to be a Republican in the age of President Trump.
That crowded field is roiled by nerves about Trump and lingering internecine dramas over ideological purity. And with next year’s midterm elections beginning to take shape, the race’s currents could reverberate far beyond the white college-educated professionals along Interstate 285, regardless of which candidate emerges from the scrum Tuesday.
“You’ve got a miniature civil war going on there,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an ally of House GOP leaders. “We’re all paying attention, since anything can happen in a special.”
The splintered GOP has raised the possibility that the leading Democratic candidate, 30-year-old former congressional staffer Jon Ossoff, could win Tuesday’s election outright with more than 50 percent of the vote, thus claiming an open House seat previously held by Trump’s health and human services secretary, Tom Price.
Trump — who barely won this district last year and tweeted Monday that the media coverage of the race was a “game” and “BAD!” — is eager to stave off a Republican stumble that could become an ominous bellwether of his standing as he attempts to build support in the coming weeks for the big-ticket legislative items that have eluded him in the GOP-controlled Congress during the early months of his presidency.
If Ossoff places first or second with support in the mid-40 percent range among the 18 total candidates — surveys show that scenario as most likely — he will face a tougher matchup this summer, when many of the warring Republicans would almost certainly coalesce to save the seat.
Georgia’s election law initially piles candidates of all stripes onto a single ballot. If no one wins a majority, the two top finishers move on to a head-to-head contest months later.
“Having 11 people on our side is like eating our young,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a friend of Trump, said in an interview Monday. He compared the infighting to the “nightmare” of his own 2014 statewide primary and added: “You risk letting the Democrat slide through without a runoff. But I don’t think that will happen if we get the turnout.”
Democratic congressional leaders and liberals from around the country have rallied for Ossoff as Republicans have clawed at one another, contributing millions to his insurgent bid and watching him soar to the top of several polls — and salivating at the prospect of picking up a seat that hasn’t gone blue since Georgia’s own Jimmy Carter occupied the Oval Office.
Trump has become a complicated figure in establishment Republican enclaves such as Chamblee, which boasts a tony shopping center with a gourmet doughnut shop and a sleek Mexican restaurant whose patio is packed in the evenings with 30-something couples. Passing through the leafy neighborhood on a warm Monday afternoon, one sees a slew of navy-blue Ossoff signs dotting sidewalks and apartment windows.
Republicans’ failure to pass their plan to overhaul the nation’s health-care system has sown doubts among some suburban GOP voters about Trump’s effectiveness in cutting deals with lawmakers in Washington, as well as the party’s promises. The health-care episode has particular resonance in this district since Price, a physician, was its representative from 2005 until February, when he joined the Cabinet.
Cole said the National Republican Congressional Committee, which he formerly chaired, has dispatched staffers to Georgia to stoke turnout among core GOP voters amid those grumbles. The Congressional Leadership Fund, an outfit aligned with the House GOP, has spent more than $2 million on a spate of negative television spots about Ossoff.
At the White House, an official said, the president is paying close attention and has been briefed by aides about the race. Political director Bill Stepien is working with the state party and the congressional committees. Chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon is involved in discussions about how to encourage Republican turnout.
But Trump’s pugilism and lack of a cohesive conservative worldview on fiscal and foreign policy have confounded Republicans here. Previous holders of the seat have included a mainstream, business-friendly Republican, Sen. Johnny Isakson, and a stridently ideological conservative, former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
The district is “a little bit of an oddity,” said Ralph Reed, a conservative leader and longtime strategist in both Georgia and national Republican circles. “Just in its socioeconomic profile, it doesn’t really lay out as Trump country. It’s highly educated, upscale, suburban, and Trump country tends to be more rural to exurban, more high school or only some college.”
The way the Republican contenders are handling Trump and the concurrent rise of populism and moderate angst in the wake of his victory is revealing, even though the names of the near-dozen candidates are unfamiliar. Everyone seems to be laboring, with varying success, to figure out a pitch that pulls together the fractured GOP ranks.
Interactions with Trump’s political brand have veered from hearty embrace (Dan Moody, Bob Gray, Bruce LeVell, Amy Kremer) to support but not always rah-rah (Karen Handel, Judson Hill) to flat-out defiance (David Abroms). Most of the leading candidates have bounced between those poles depending on the day or the latest controversy.
Handel, a favorite of antiabortion activists who has the highest name recognition and once served as Georgia’s secretary of state, said in an interview Monday that she is concentrating on doing her “level best to represent the interests of the 6th District” in her positions rather than linking arms with Trump.
“Obviously I’m a Republican and support the president,” Handel said. “But being in Congress is not the same as being an extension of the White House. I’m more than willing to step up and speak out when the circumstances demand that. . . . People want a doer — someone they trust who can move our party from vocal opposition to governing.”
Endorsements from prominent Republican players have been scattered to the point of muddying the field. Perdue has backed Moody. Gingrich supports Hill, as does Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski endorsed LeVell. Former senator Saxby Chambliss is for Handel. But the conservative Club for Growth has opposed Handel and boosted Gray. To counter the club, the Ending Spending advocacy group, which is backed by the billionaire Ricketts family, has poured millions behind Handel’s candidacy.
It goes on and on like that further down the line in the state. One group or officeholder goes for Handel, another goes for Gray, another jumps in for Moody or Hill, and Trump supporters of different degrees poke and prod one another on social media.
Unsurprisingly, no one has caught fire, and constant squabbling has remained the thrust of the GOP race. As Ossoff’s candidacy has exploded on the left — landing on the cover of New York magazine, raising more than $8 million, and attracting the support of actors such as Samuel L. Jackson and bloggers at MoveOn.org and Daily Kos — the Republicans have hovered below 20 percent in most polls.
“We’ve got a shot at an upset,” Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) said. “It’s like what we’re seeing all around, this backlash. The protests, the marches. Democrats want to make a statement.”
As they did in a special House election last week in Kansas, where Republicans narrowly won a seat that has long been safely GOP, Democrats see, if not a chance at victory, at least a chance to rattle Trump and Republicans as they look toward 2018 and the possibility of winning back the chamber. The surge in early voting here has only raised expectations that Ossoff could hit 50 percent Tuesday or do well in a runoff, which would be held June 20 if needed.
Trump signaled in a tweet Monday how Republicans would define Ossoff in a runoff election: “The super Liberal Democrat in the Georgia Congressioal [sic] race tomorrow wants to protect criminals, allow illegal immigration and raise taxes!”
Ossoff replied in a statement: “While I’m glad the president is interested in the race, he is misinformed.”
An Emerson College survey released late last week showed Ossoff with 43 percent. Handel garnered 17 percent, Gray — a former local councilman and businessman — 15 percent and Moody — a former state senator — 9 percent. Hill, another former state senator, was at 6 percent.
LeVell, an African American jeweler and former Trump campaign adviser, as well as Trump-aligned conservative activist Kremer, have struggled, perhaps showing the difficulty of being a die-hard Trump supporter in a Republican district that’s not dominated by grass-roots nationalism. Abroms, who has campaigned with anti-Trump independent Evan McMullin, has also found it hard to get on the political map.
Perdue, who has worked closely with the Trump White House, said he is confident that despite the bloodletting among Republicans, a runoff election would end favorably since this “district is a traditionally 60-40 Republican district, and we really don’t want to give a vote to Nancy Pelosi,” the House Democratic leader.
But Perdue acknowledged that his party is still figuring things out. “It’s a democracy,” he said wryly of the clashing Republicans. One upside to the fracas, he volunteered, is that “our candidates are not coached like the Democrats.”