The unfolding drama over Russian meddling in the 2016 election and President Trump’s handling of ensuing investigations has transfixed Washington — and bored Mather Lindsay.
“Probably a little overdone,” Lindsay, a 46-year-old economist and father of three girls, said during lunch this week at the Salt Factory Pub. What grabbed Lindsay’s attention was the GOP’s stalled legislative agenda — in particular, the promised overhauls of the tax code and the nation’s health-care law.
“Trump’s self-inflicted wounds are my biggest disappointment,” Lindsay said. “He has squandered a huge opportunity to get all that done.”
“Someone,” he added, “needs to take his Twitter away.”
Republicans in this wealthy community on the outskirts of Atlanta — and in traditionally right-leaning suburbs nationally — are facing a reckoning. So far, they have been willing to stomach a torrent of Trump outbursts and worrying twists in the Russia probes, but they are beginning to wonder if their patience is worth it.
A crucial test of that patience will come Tuesday in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, home not only to well-educated, mostly white Republicans but also to what has become the most expensive House race in history.
The outcome here will be seen primarily as a referendum on Trump — and a window onto the possible, with Democrats trying to score their first victory in the Trump era and pave the way to 2018, when they hope to take advantage of Trump’s unpopularity and Washington’s gridlock to win back the House.
The district, a historically ruby-red swath of suburbia that has evolved in recent years with an influx of younger, educated professionals along with immigrants, mirrors many of the communities where the fiercest midterm battles are expected to play out next year.
Unlike the smattering of other special elections this year in which Republicans have prevailed, these dynamics have yielded a high-stakes contest for both parties.
In recent weeks, tightening polls in the race have escalated the tension. Republican Karen Handel, a socially conservative fixture in state politics, is running against Democrat Jon Ossoff, 30, a well-rehearsed former Capitol Hill staffer who has politely nodded to the anger on the left without embracing it.
A record turnout is expected: About 120,000 people have already voted, according to Georgia officials — nearly a quarter of registered voters here.
For Republicans, who have held this seat since 1979, when Newt Gingrich won the first of 11 terms, the moment is fraught with anxiety. While their core voters may be shrugging off Trump-Russia questions for now, party leaders are skittish about whether they will pay a steep price for months of inaction.
Conversations with more than a dozen voters here revealed a Republican electorate that remains generally supportive of Trump. They are, after all, aiming to replace a representative who won the district overwhelmingly last year and who now works for the president: Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. But notably, these voters rarely echoed Trump’s populist roar about “fake news” or his gripes about the special counsel looking into his role in the Russia investigation.
What they want is what they were pledged — more-affordable health care, tax cuts, new roads and bridges, an economy that feels as strong as the numbers seem to show.
“This district has been extremely hard on Trump,” said Jonathan Huddleston, 30, a supporter of Trump and Handel, while he ate lunch at Zest, a sushi and tapas cafe in Roswell. “It’s establishment, very establishment, and that’s how it’s run.”
Huddleston said that the GOP’s agitation is driven by Trump’s style as much as his record.
“What Trump said on the campaign trail and what he’s been doing haven’t been the same because he hasn’t gotten enough support from Congress. So he’s tried with the executive orders,” he said. “While I know it’ll all happen in time, that’s not how everyone around here sees it.”
Atop the list of voter concerns: efforts by the Republican-controlled Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The House-passed legislation, which is unpopular in polls, has slowed in the Senate.
Huddleston’s mother, Sharon, who leans toward Democrats, said she can almost feel the unrest in the air. “People are tense about what’s going on with coverage for preexisting conditions,” she said. “They’re tense about how we’re being seen in the world.”
Also on voters’ minds are unfulfilled promises to cut taxes and build new infrastructure projects. Those with limited investments said financial gains have been difficult to come by.
“It’s been a little bit tough,” said William Almgren, a 54-year-old Republican who was waiting tables at the pub. Burly and wearing an apron, he said he moved to Atlanta decades ago from New York for a back-office job, but that went away. So here he was. “I’m a survivor,” he said, “and I bought a house in Roswell back in November ’98, so I’ve got that.”
Almgren, who has traces of an outer-boroughs accent, said he voted for Trump but he’s not “100 percent in with Trump. He needs to calm down, stop the sensationalism.”
“When the economy’s doing well, the country does well,” he said. “My advice is: Remember that.”
Across the street, in sunglasses and pushing her young daughter in a stroller, was Allison Thorne, 39. A mother of two, she watches the hipster-favorite television network Vice along with One America News Network, an upstart conservative channel.
Thorne said that her politics tend to be on the libertarian side of the Republican spectrum, even though she does not identify with either party these days.
“I don’t watch Russia Today,” she joked. “We dip our toes in the water, but not in that end.”
Thorne’s views on Trump are mixed, and she isn’t thrilled about either candidate in the 6th District.
“It makes me uncomfortable when people call Trump dumb. But I can’t help but thinking he’s in over his head,” she said. “He probably thought it’d be like it always was, his little kingdom, and he’s figuring out that’s not how government works.”
Ahead of Tuesday, Thorne said she is “exhausted and disillusioned” over Trump, the media, the constant squabbling in Washington and the barrage of negative ads on TV.
“I’m tired. It never stops,” she said. “Would I like to see things get done? Yes. But I doubt they will.”
Handel has uneasily navigated this environment, dismissing Russia-related controversies as “noise” and fundraising alongside Trump. Yet in a district that Trump barely won, her pitch has tended to veer away from the president and toward classic Republican priorities.
“What they are focused on is what’s happening with the economy, the rollback of regulations,” Handel said of voters this week during a stop at Rhea’s, a casual hamburger restaurant in Roswell.
On health care, Handel has been careful to balance her base’s desires and moderates’ fears about wholesale change. She told reporters here that the “status quo is unacceptable” but pointedly refused to embrace the legislation that sits before the Senate, saying it is “not perfect.”
When asked about Trump’s use of Twitter, Handel flashed a tight smile.
“Look, some of you have known me. I’m a little more measured about things, and sometimes that’s a prudent approach,” she said.
Amid the heavily nationalized atmosphere, Handel has also played up her local ties and her time as Georgia’s secretary of state — and skewered Ossoff for living outside the district.
Nevertheless, Ossoff has seized on Handel’s fragile hold on Republican voters and courted them with centrist platitudes, all while rousing the Trump “resistance” movement that has come to see his cause as their own — and raising more than $23 million in the process.
Whenever he has been asked in recent months whether he supports House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Ossoff has said, as if on cue, that he has not given it “an ounce of thought.” At debates, Ossoff has been more inclined to bemoan “wasteful spending” than to talk up progressive totems championed by other millennial Democrats.
Ossoff’s approach to Russia has been cautious. He has not hammered the notion of possible conspiracy or collusion but mostly pressed for an independent investigation to move forward.
“I don’t think we’re there,” Ossoff told a public radio station last month when asked about some Democrats’ calls for impeachment. “We need a full and transparent and independent assessment.”
That strategy, combined with GOP angst, has given Ossoff’s supporters confidence that he could become the first Democrat to score an upset during Trump’s presidency — and a model of how to win back the House.
Sharon Huddleston, who has lived in Roswell for 27 years, said she is willing to give Ossoff a chance: “Anybody who’s going to have fresh eyes on the situation would be better.”
A pair of Democratic teachers — Michael Leonard, 51, and Elizabeth Ervin, 31 — were at the Waffle House in Chamblee this week, a more Democratic and diverse stretch of the district, and said most Democrats were motivated simply to stop Trump. They resisted predicting victory since special elections can be strange.
“Most of my students, who are adult immigrants, are pretty scared,” Ervin said. “A lot of people are actually pretty scared.”
Leonard, for his part, has had enough. “I’m tired of seeing all of them — Ossoff, Handel, Trump — and I’ll be glad when it’s over with. I’m sure I’m not alone,” he said.
Leonard wished politics would be more about solving problems: “I’m open to Republican ideas on health care since it’s so darn expensive. But let’s not abolish the law.”
The district is not all conservative cul-de-sac communities, dotted with gourmet doughnut shops, shiny SUVs and manicured lawns. There are transplants with various ethnic backgrounds. Chamblee is majority Hispanic and has a thriving Asian community. Blue-collar workers are all over, constructing soon-to-open Whole Foods supermarkets or working in retail.
Some of these voters said they don’t think much about Trump — or Russia, either. It’s all about paying bills.
“There’s not much flowing capital,” said Donald Hunt, 48, who works at a mill company, as he stopped by Old Brick Pit Barbeque in Chamblee. Hunt wouldn’t say whom he will choose. “Trump is out there, but I don’t think about him all of the time. Russia? C’mon, it’s all about China, man.”
Still, the election is likely to be decided by Republicans.
At Rhea’s, Handel made a beeline toward Malone Dodson, 79, a retired Methodist minister who supports her. For her, he represented the rare reliable — and friendly — voter. He gave her a hearty handshake.
“Faith, health, living condition and the economy, those are my issues,” Dodson said as he sat down with his sandwich. “My take on Trump is: Better to leave him alone. He’ll straighten out and be fine.”
Asked about the Russia investigation, Dodson said: “Quit paying attention to that and see the big picture. We need a good economy, good defense and good jobs, and Trump’s doing it.”
Back on the pub stool across town, there was no such enthusiasm. Lindsay said he planned to vote Republican on Tuesday, but he wasn’t committing to the party beyond that.
“I’m all for disruption, but most people are getting fed up with the circus show,” he said.
And if Trump can’t get going on policies, Lindsay suggested that voters could disrupt him.
“It does make you wonder about whether single-party government makes sense,” he said. “Sometimes, if the pendulum swings too far one way, it swings back.”