ATLANTA — Republicans are becoming increasingly concerned about their ability to hang on to former Republican congressman Tom Price’s seat here in a wealthy, suburban district where restive Democratic energy has been surging since November’s election.
Democratic hopes rest on Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional staffer and preternaturally on-message candidate. He has raised a whopping $8.3 million for the special election to replace Price in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District — more than anyone has ever collected to win this seat, which has not been represented by a Democrat for nearly four decades.
Ossoff is a first-time candidate who is leading the field of five Democrats and 11 Republicans in the April 18 special election. If he does not receive more than 50 percent of the vote in that race, the top two vote-getters will move on to a runoff on June 20.
The progressive and anti-Trump groups founded through the nonprofit Indivisible project after November’s election are plunging in to help him, and the liberal blog Daily Kos is channeling donors Ossoff’s way. Most of Ossoff’s money, $7.7 million, came though the progressive donation hub ActBlue. Republicans have tried to toxify him by raising the specter of meddling out-of-state liberals — only 6 percent of the money is from Georgia — but Ossoff points to his volunteers.
“The atmosphere in Georgia is electric right now,” Ossoff said in a short interview at his parents’ home. “Thousands of folks, many of whom have never been engaged in politics before, working together to make the statement that we think the country can only become stronger and more prosperous and more secure if we stick to our core values.”
Republicans, however, are fighting back, unwilling to easily cede a district that Trump won by 1.5 percentage points in 2016 — albeit down from the 23.3-point margin enjoyed by 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Outside groups and the national Republican Party are spending millions on television ads that paint the Democrats as the hope of window-smashing anarchists who want Ossoff in Congress. Georgia Republican Party mailers darkly warn about Ossoff’s work for the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera TV network. (The mailers print the network’s Arabic name on a black background, resembling the flag of ISIS.) The National Rifle Association warns, in drawling radio ads, that Democrats want to “steal this election and your freedom.”
Asked about the attacks Friday, Ossoff paused, then rattled off adjectives.
“Predictable, cynical, partisan, negative politics, with a whiff of desperation,” he said.
Ossoff’s lead might also be artificially inflated. The number of Republicans running here means that the GOP vote is split, and no contender is likely to win the more than 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff. It’s possible that Republicans will unite around whoever emerges from their field.
It is also possible that the progressive energy kicked up because of Trump’s presidency could see its first real victory here in Georgia in the campaign to “flip the 6th.” The race will test Democrats’ strength in the kind of districts they need to win if they hope to retake the House in 2018 — mainly suburban areas that have become more demographically diverse.
Five special elections are underway in congressional districts where Trump pulled Republicans out of Congress to join his administration. All came from safely red districts or states; in three of them, small donors and political groups are churning up competitive races. On Friday, Republicans announced new spending in Kansas’s much more Republican 4th District, which votes Tuesday — Sen. Ted Cruz announced that he would fly from Texas to campaign there.
But the Georgia race has attracted more money and volunteers. No open House district swung harder away from Republicans in 2016. The district is diverse, rich and highly educated, a microcosm of the “rising American electorate” that Democrats hoped to ride to victory last year.
Ossoff paints himself as a pragmatist, willing to work with both sides of the aisle. But he has also taken on Trump, running a campaign ad that shows him tweeting that he will “stand up to Donald Trump because anyone can send a tweet.”
Sitting silently on a desk in a suit with a blue tie, the only sound is of the Democrat typing on his smartphone. His words run across the screen as though they were being posted to Twitter. “He should act like a president,” the ad ends.
Republicans and their allied groups are fighting the money and the messenger.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is running ads invoking House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, closely allied with House GOP leaders, debuted a widely panned ad that used old footage of Ossoff in a Han Solo costume to portray him as immature.
Since then, the super PAC has attacked Ossoff for contracting with Al Jazeera on a documentary film — about the Islamic State — and tied him to the anarchists who disrupted Trump’s inauguration. In a memo to donors, the CLF credits its ads with giving Ossoff a net negative favorable rating — with 60 percent of voters viewing him as liberal — and with keeping him far from the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
“The only thing he’s ever accomplished in his life is having the fortune to be born to rich parents who will spend millions of dollars on him,” said Corry Bliss, the CLF’s executive director, who plans to spend at least $2.2 million in Georgia. “You could go down to Georgia, give anyone $8 million, and they’d get 40 percent of the vote.”
In the first 10 days of early voting, 17,871 ballots have been cast and self-identified Democrats have outnumbered Republicans by a 19-point margin. On Friday, however, the Democratic margin was just five points. By Sunday, the CLF was up with its third commercial branding Ossoff a “rubber stamp” for Pelosi, ending with the plea “vote Republican.”
“People aren’t very happy about it, but we’re also like: Hey, they’re feeling threatened,” said Amy Nosek, 42, of the district’s Indivisible Georgia chapter. “They’re fighting back, because we’re fighting.”
The reasons for that confidence were on display at this week’s candidate debate, held at the Atlanta Press Club. Ossoff had ready (and sometimes wooden) answers to questions about his resume. He responded with flawless Hill-speak to ads accusing him of inflating his experience working for Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.): “For two annual fiscal authorizations for the Department of Defense, I contributed language to the National Defense Authorization Act.”
Meanwhile, Ossoff’s rivals had their arms full defending the Republican record in the Trump era. Karen Handel, a near-miss candidate in two statewide races — currently polling highest to make the runoff’s second spot — repeatedly rejected the House GOP’s health-care proposal and the negotiations to strip “essential health benefits” from the current system.
“That’s not Tom Price’s plan,” said Handel. “Not every single time do we have a mandate that is horrible.” Moments later, longtime tea party activist and candidate Amy Kremer said that she, too, opposed the bill; Ossoff deflected one of her attacks by praising her “bipartisanship” for criticizing both parties.
“The people in that district are educated, and they’re tired of the mudslinging they saw in the presidential campaign, so it doesn’t work like it used to,” Johnson said. “They’re looking at issues. They were promised a bill of goods that was not delivered.”
Republicans hope that in a runoff, with Ossoff facing just one Republican, he won’t be able to zoom around the partisan differences. But every Ossoff event, or interview, offers more evidence of how he is already effectively smoothing away those rifts. On Friday night, speaking to a house party of about 50, the Democrat fielded questions on health care, infrastructure and partisanship itself.
“The only test to policy that I’ll supply is, is it in the interest of this community?” Ossoff said. “If it is, I’ll support it. If it’s not, I won’t. I’ll work with anyone who wants to help us here and help the country, and I’ll stand up to anyone who doesn’t, regardless of party.”
On Friday, Ossoff’s style helped him evade the sort of issue that can swerve a campaign off-course — Trump’s missile strikes on Syria. Ossoff’s ads portray the president as reckless and in need of congressional checks.
“Congress has an important role to play in ensuring the conduct of U.S. foreign policy is the interest of the American people, but so too does the commander in chief have significant discretion to act where appropriate,” Ossoff said.
Georgia Democrats have long memories about moderate-looking candidates getting whipsawed by international events. In 2002, then-Sen. Max Cleland, a Democrat who lost his legs and one arm in Vietnam, was defeated after an ad shamed him for votes against the Department of Homeland Security — and illustrated it with images of Osama bin Laden. The new ads, from both the CLF and the Georgia Republican Party, also try to blur a strength — Ossoff’s documentary company that reported on the Islamic State — into a question-raising weakness.
“It’s disgusting, and it’s eerily reminiscent of what they did against me in 2002,” Cleland said. “But people are sick and tired of that kind of stuff.”