DUNWOODY, Ga. — House Speaker Paul D. Ryan spoke for just four minutes and 20 seconds, but his message hardly needed more time than that. Karen Handel, the Republican candidate in Georgia’s once-safe 6th Congressional District, was under attack from “the left and Nancy Pelosi.” It was up to Republican voters to stop them.
“You know what we’ve got to do this summer? We’ve got to repeal and replace Obamacare,” said Ryan (R-Wis.) while close to 200 Republican voters fanned themselves to counter the hotel ballroom’s rippling heat. “Then we’ve got to take this crazy tax code and replace it with one that actually works. We need Karen Handel to help us do that.”
There was no mention of President Trump — and nothing about the details of the American Health Care Act or various tax-cut blueprints. But there was an unmistakable sense of urgency that the Beltway GOP’s sagging approval ratings had taken their toll and threatened the party’s hold on elected offices — and that a win against Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia could quiet that until next year.
Georgia’s June 20 runoff election will wrap up a quartet of special elections for Republican-held seats this year, in which the roiling Democratic base has stocked millions of dollars and giddily high hopes. But after a single-digit loss in Kansas, and after Ossoff’s 48 percent showing led to a runoff in Georgia, Democrats are under new pressure to post a win.
All of the openings result from Republican lawmakers being tapped for positions in the Trump administration. In Georgia, Ossoff and Handel are vying for the former seat of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
If they can’t win in the aftermath of the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, or the revelation this week that Trump shared classified information with Russians, Democrats will stoke doubts about whether they can regain majorities in Congress next year. And Republicans will have proved the power of a cash-rich campaign network that started early and aggressively to pummel insurgent Democrats with ads.
There are at least two dozen seats where Hillary Clinton performed stronger than in Georgia’s 6th District and dozens more that shine bluer than Montana or the South Carolina seat. But the ambitious, organized “resistance” — an echo of the tea party movement that powered Republican wins across blue America in 2010 — has the party talking big about its potential gains.
The Georgia race, already the most expensive House contest in history, attracted early money because its wealthy and reliably Republican suburban voters backed Trump by just two percentage points.
But the May 25 race for Montana’s sole House seat has excited liberals, too, with first-time candidate Rob Quist, a country singer, pulling in $3.3 million for a contested race that Republicans did not expect. In South Carolina, another June 20 election will pit Democrat Archie Parnell against a Republican state legislator who had to slug through an expensive and bitter primary fight.
In each race, Republicans are operating as though the turf has not shifted since 2016 — and Democrats are cautious. Although D.C. Democrats talk about a White House in collapse, the candidates trying to win back power are treading lightly. Ossoff, a 30-year old former congressional staffer who has said that he would “make Trump furious” if he won, has avoided obvious ties to national Democrats.
Rep. John Lewis (Ga.), an icon of the civil rights movement icon who represents metro Atlanta, is the only other Democrat who has appeared in Ossoff’s ads. When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) dropped into Atlanta last week, he did not campaign in the 6th District, 15 minutes north of downtown. And in an interview this weekend, Ossoff declined to take a shot at Ryan as he stumped for Handel.
“Voters here don’t care which national figures roll through,” he said. “They want to know who’s going to deliver independent-minded, fresh leadership for this economy.”
Democrats’ polling has found Ossoff’s favorable rating ticking up — but inside a race that remains tight, within every survey’s margin of error. And Ossoff’s messaging is defiantly calm and center-left, even in settings where the party’s base seems to crave more.
Although activists argue for the party to endorse single-payer health care, Ossoff says he would “take what works” and build on the Affordable Care Act — including reforms such as letting people buy insurance across state lines. In an ad that dropped the day the House passed the American Health Care Act, Ossoff pledged to cut waste from the budget, a deficit-hawk message that has fallen out of fashion among liberals. Both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Ossoff’s campaign have attacked Handel not as a Trump toady, but as a spendthrift who used public resources to acquire a luxury car and decorate an office.
On Saturday, Ossoff campaigned with three key segments of the district’s Democratic electorate — Latinos, Asian Americans, and white liberals boiling over about the daily goings-on at the White House. The first stop, at a Spanish-language radio station’s block party, sent Ossoff through a gauntlet of voters asking about health care and immigration policy. Before he spoke from a bandstand, a field staffer named Cristian Ramos told hundreds of Latinos that Ossoff would help fight the president’s immigration policy.
“There’s panic and many people are asking, ‘Who’s going to fight against this policy that promotes racism and a political structure that doesn’t benefit Latinos?’” Ramos asked in Spanish. “We have to change the narrative. We have to say, ‘No, end the deportations, we’re not going to keep quiet,’ that we’re going to turn out and vote and elect candidates who are going to represent our values.”
Ossoff gave a more mellow speech, attacking Trump — not by name — for “breaking up families,” and telling voters that Americans “are stronger when we’re together.” The tone was the same at a block party for more than 100 Asian American voters in the growing suburb of John’s Creek.
“We have an opportunity to make a statement that kindness and decency and respect are still the values that unite Americans,” Ossoff said.
And at a house party with several dozen white voters, in a hilly neighborhood thick with Handel signs, Ossoff was just as cautious. A voter who asked how he’d stand up to Trump received a textured answer about how to find solutions.
“I will work with the president if, for example, he puts together an infrastructure bill that’s fiscally responsible and serves the needs of this community,” Ossoff said. “I’ll stand up to the president if I think he threatens our interests or our values.”
Ossoff satisfied the questioner, eventually, when he endorsed a special prosecutor to look into the Trump campaign’s possible connections to Russia. But in an interview, he remained careful about what he was asking for, and declined to speculate about what investigators might find.
“Folks in this community who have concerns about the competence, the honesty of the administration — myself among them — I think have had those concerns for some time,” he said. “You know, it’s important for both parties to exercise their oversight responsibilities, no matter the personalities in the White House.”
It’s a far cry from the way Democrats in bluer districts talk — or the way Republicans talked about Barack Obama or Clinton. In Georgia, even more than in Montana or South Carolina, Democrats hope they can build a majority by adding their base to swing voters who are concerned with the ruling party’s competence more than its agenda.
Republicans aren’t being so cautious. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Ryan-aligned super PAC, has pummeled Ossoff for months for living outside the district (his fiancee is finishing a degree at Emory University in Atlanta) and linked him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the grounds that polls found her unpopular in the 6th Congressional District.
And on Monday, Handel spoke confidently, if with few details, about getting to work to help Ryan and Trump pass bills.
“I’ll work with Speaker Ryan to make sure we make health care better for families and businesses,” she said. It was her only mention of the GOP’s signature bill — and it came before Ryan made four references to Ossoff’s home outside the district.
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.