SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. — President Trump faces a high-stakes political test Tuesday in a special congressional election that has turned into a referendum on his leadership and could have significant consequences for his stalled agenda on Capitol Hill.
On the eve of the vote to fill a House seat in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, Trump acknowledged that a Republican defeat in the district, which the party has held for nearly four decades, could have wide implications.
“The Dems want to stop tax cuts, good healthcare and Border Security. Their ObamaCare is dead with 100% increases in P’s. Vote now for Karen H,” the president tweeted, referring to Karen Handel, the GOP contender.
Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, is locked in a tight battle against Democrat Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old first-time candidate who lives just outside the district boundary. “Karen Handel’s opponent in #GA06 can’t even vote in the district he wants to represent,” Trump pointed out in another tweet.
Handel and Ossoff are vying to fill the seat vacated by Tom Price, who had held it from 2005 until he joined Trump’s Cabinet as health and human services secretary this year.
In the first round of voting, on April 18, Ossoff nearly topped the 50 percent threshold that would have given him an outright victory in an 18-candidate primary field. Falling just short, he has found himself in a runoff against Handel, who is scrambling to consolidate the Republican vote.
Though the two contenders rarely mention Trump, the national significance of the contest has brought forth a flood of advertising and organization.
Spending in the race by the campaigns and outside groups has topped $50 million, making it by far the most expensive House contest in U.S. history.
One low point came in the final days of the race, with a super PAC attack ad that showed footage of a bloodied House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) being taken off a baseball field on a stretcher after last Wednesday’s shooting in suburban Washington.
As the sound of gunshots echoes, a narrator says: “The unhinged left is endorsing and applauding shooting Republicans. When will it stop? It won’t if Jon Ossoff wins on Tuesday.”
Both candidates have denounced the ad.
While the affluent district has long been solidly red territory — Price breezed to a 23-point victory in November — it has not been quite as friendly to Trump’s brand of populist Republicanism. He won it over Hillary Clinton by only one percentage point in last November’s general election and had lost it to Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) in the GOP primary.
The race is also being watched as a possible harbinger of the national dynamics ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, though strategists on both sides note that the amount of resources and attention it has received cannot be replicated across the map.
“The likelihood is the margin is going to be one or two points either way, so it is very easy to over-interpret the outcome,” said Matt Bennett, senior vice president of the centrist Democratic organization Third Way. “But a 20-point swing in a House vote between November and June — that’s a lot.”
For Trump, the consequences could be far more immediate.
A Democratic victory in this traditionally conservative and wealthy swath of suburbia would probably rattle Senate Republicans as they try to jump-start legislation to overhaul the nation’s health-care law by the end of this month. And it would raise questions about whether Trump has retained a strong hold on his party’s base as he turns to other policy ambitions this summer.
“I think this race is a wake-up call to the party and the political arm of the administration to pay attention to what they are doing and not doing that could potentially impact future success for the party at the ballot box,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele.
Inside the West Wing, Trump and his advisers have paid increasing attention to the race and have been briefed regularly on Handel’s standing in private polls, GOP ground efforts and early-vote totals, according to a White House official. In particular, the official added, strategist Stephen K. Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus have been involved in discussions about the race and possible ramifications.
Associates of Trump — who have said he is already furious over the focus on his handling of investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — warned that an Ossoff win could spark new rage toward Handel’s campaign and the way the GOP handled the race.
“The Trump White House, in that situation, could certainly point to how Handel’s candidacy was always problematic,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign adviser. “What was her message? Was she running a local or national race? It has never been clear, and she has a history in Georgia as a right-winger.”
Yet her biggest problem may be Trump. Handel hosted two of his Cabinet secretaries over the weekend at a rally but did not talk up the president. She instead tore into Ossoff as a liberal with “San Francisco” values who identifies with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). It was a classic tactic to rouse Republicans but also a sign of her uneasiness with how to handle Trump.
The results will provide a frame for the argument going on within the Democratic Party as it struggles to find its way back to power, having been shut out in Washington and decimated on the state and local levels. That its candidate in this race is the unseasoned Ossoff is evidence of how thin its ranks have become.
While many in the party’s energized liberal base are arguing for an aggressive approach that would emphasize their disdain for and differences with Trump and the Republicans, Ossoff has lately taken a more conciliatory tack. He speaks of his intention to work across party lines and has made cutting federal spending a signature campaign promise.
Ossoff has run as a “relatively optimistic moderate,” Bennett said. “In red or purple districts, [that stance] seems a lot more promising.”
Ossoff’s final sprint across the district focused on the seemingly contradictory dictates of trying to drive up as much energy as possible to turn out his supporters — but in the most polite manner possible.
His early stops came with another 30-something Democrat at his side: Jason Kander, the former Missouri secretary of state who lost a close Senate race in deep-red Missouri last year and became an icon for a party starved for stars not eligible for AARP membership.
Kander and Ossoff addressed several dozen volunteers and supporters at a field office in this suburb north of Atlanta, standing underneath three signs that attempted to capture the tone this campaign is trying to thread: “Humble, kind, ready to fight.”
Ossoff needs Republican votes to win, so in the closing days of the campaign there were no signs of leading liberal antagonists such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), nor were there any party elder statesmen to vouch for Ossoff. Former vice president Joe Biden, for example, spent the weekend in South Florida raising money for Democrats.
Across the district in Roswell, at Handel’s final campaign rally, Republicans demonstrated their own split-image vision of the current political mood. In the era of Trump — a first-time candidate who violated countless political norms last year — Handel and her backers castigated Ossoff for lacking experience and breaching norms by living a few blocks outside the congressional district.
“Karen has the background, the experience, the know-how,” Gov. Nathan Deal (R) told a crowd inside a bar.
In her speech, Handel touted “experience” again and again, boasting of her time on a county commission, on the local Chamber of Commerce and as the state’s top election official.
“I’ve actually done it,” she said.
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.