Voters in suburban Atlanta are heading to the polls Tuesday to cast ballots in the most expensive House race in history, choosing between Jon Ossoff, a Democrat and former congressional staffer, and Karen Handel, a Republican and a former Georgia secretary of state.
The special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District — sparked when President Trump tapped then-Rep. Tom Price to be his health and human services secretary — has been painted as a referendum on the president and his agenda. Democrats, fired up by anti-Trump feeling and anger over the GOP health care plan, and Republicans, eager to defend a seat that has been held by the party for decades, have poured a combined $50 million into the race.
With the contest too close to call, President Trump took to Twitter to urge Georgians to vote for Handel.
KAREN HANDEL FOR CONGRESS. She will fight for lower taxes, great healthcare strong security-a hard worker who will never give up! VOTE TODAY
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 20, 2017
Trump on Monday also called on his supporters to back Ralph Norman in South Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District, where a special election is being held Tuesday.
But with Norman expected to win easily, far more eyes are on Georgia.
National Democrats have cast the Peach State race as a referendum on Trump, but the reality on the ground is more complicated. Ossoff needs to pick up at least some Republican voters if he wants to win the historically red district. He has avoided making the race about the unpopular president, saying he would “stand up” to Trump in Washington but eschewing most of the strong language of the keyed-up left. Handel, meanwhile, moved a bit closer to Trump after she won the Republican primary, accepting robocalls from him targeting voters in the district. But Handel’s posture is still far from a full-on embrace of Trump, and she’s promised voters she’d be independent from him if elected.
The president flew down to the district on Air Force One at the end of April to headline a fundraiser for Handel. “You better win,” he told her in front of the well-heeled crowd, according to an attendee at the event.
The president is less popular among Republicans in the once-solid GOP district than others. He won its voters by only 1.5 points in November, even as Price won reelection there by double digits. Handel’s GOP primary opponents criticized her for remaining somewhat distant from Trump, but the strategy paid off when she garnered by far the most votes of any Republican in the crowded field and narrowly prevented Ossoff from reaching the 50 percent he needed to win the election outright in the nonpartisan primary.
Though the election hasn’t been explicitly about the president, it has been about health care. In a recent interview with Breitbart News, Handel said the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare “hasn’t been much of an issue on the ground,” instead saying the “biggest issue” for voters has been the fact that Ossoff lives outside the district. A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll suggests otherwise. More than 80 percent of voters said the cost of health care was extremely or very important in making their choice; the district’s voters disapproved of the proposed Republican health care bill by 37 points, with just 25 percent of them supporting the legislation.
One of the testiest exchanges between the two candidates during the race’s televised debate earlier this month came when Handel declared that Obamacare was “collapsing.” Handel said she and her husband know the issue firsthand because they buy their insurance on the exchanges and have seen their premiums skyrocket. Ossoff countered with a story about a young boy with a heart condition who because of his preexisting condition could be priced out of health insurance under the Republican plan Handel supports.
“My sister has a preexisting condition,” Handel responded heatedly. “She was born without an esophagus. And for you to suggest that I would do anything to negatively affect her is absolutely outrageous and unacceptable.”
The Ossoff campaign has also criticized Handel’s past role in cutting off funding from the Susan B. Komen Foundation to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening. Handel hit back with ads that played up her commitment to women’s health.
The race has been in a dead heat since the two candidates emerged from the primary in April. It will likely come down to who has the better turnout operation.
“We’ve known all along that this race was going to be too close to call,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. She pointed to a recent poll that showed more than half of voters in the district reported being contacted in person by the Ossoff campaign — nearly double the portion of those who said they were contacted by the Handel campaign.
“It’s that kind of contact that drives up voter turnout,” Gillespie said.
Nearly 140,000 people have already cast their ballots through early voting, according to the Journal-Constitution, with up to 250,000 total votes expected by the end of the day Tuesday.
There are more Republicans than Democrats in the district, a challenge Ossoff has attempted to overcome by explicitly reaching out to GOP voters with a moderate message.
A Handel loss would likely send shockwaves through Republican political circles. Many GOP lawmakers are already wary about what the fired-up Democratic base could mean for their chances in the 2018 midterm elections. But a Handel victory could also be demoralizing for the left, which has poured its heart and money into the race.
“The reality is when Handel wins we’re going to be able to say, ‘Look, you spent $50 million in this district with your new darling candidate and you still could not make up the percent and a half that Trump won this district by in November,’” said local Republican consultant Seth Weathers, referring to the total amount spent by both sides during the campaign.
“If you can’t make up a percent and a half with a $50 million election,” Weathers added, “it’s not going to happen, and it should be depressing to Democrats attending to this.”
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