It’s Election Day in Georgia, where a House special election has put President Donald Trump’s popularity back on the ballot, turned suburban Atlanta into a battleground for the first time in a generation and obliterated campaign finance records.
Democrat Jon Ossoff has had a slight advantage in public polls against Republican Karen Handel, but the race could not be much closer after six months and $50 million spent to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in Congress. And both parties are closely watching the biggest House race ever for clues about how to fight the 2018 elections.
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Handel and Ossoff both tried to make the race about their own candidacies, with Handel touting deep roots in the district and Ossoff casting himself as a “fresh, independent voice.” But, ultimately, “This race is a referendum on Republicans and the Trump administration nationally, no question,” said Phil Kent, a Republican political commentator based in Georgia.
Here are POLITICO’s seven things to watch as the results roll in Tuesday night:
How high will turnout go?
Early voting soared ahead of Election Day, with more than 140,000 voters casting their ballots early, some before embarking on summer vacations. Total turnout in the April primary topped 192,000, and 2014 midterm levels (about 210,000 voters) are not far beyond.
Higher turnout often benefits Democrats — but in a year when Democrats were already unusually enthusiastic, it could give Republicans a boost instead. Many more GOP voters showed up early this time than in the April all-party primary, which has some Republicans feeling good and some Democrats nervous.
“This is still a Republican-leaning district, and Republicans of all stripes have rallied around Karen,” Kent said. One national Democratic strategist added: “There’s been an effort to include and activate some of the Republican base that wasn’t around [in April], and we’ve seen evidence of that.”
But there’s a big question outstanding for Handel: Did the push to get Republicans to vote early just accelerate GOP voting instead of adding to it? Handel will almost certainly do better in the early vote than Republicans did against Ossoff in April, but the Democrat could still win the election anyway.
Ossoff’s moderate message
Ossoff and Handel both played to the middle in the runoff. Ossoff kicked off his campaign in January by asking voters to “Make Trump Furious,” but he’s departed from the progressive playbook with a centrist message aimed at attracting disillusioned Republican voters.
It paid off in the primary, with one Republican firm estimating that at least 8 to 10 percent of GOP voters backed Ossoff, and Ossoff needs more than the Democratic base to win this district. But by rejecting a single-payer health care system and occasionally praising Trump, Ossoff could risk alienating hardcore progressives.
Nevertheless, most public polls show Ossoff almost completely unifying his party. “There is no room to worry about who is the most progressive right now,” said Michael Owens, chairman of the Cobb County Democratic Party. “We understand that there is a spectrum, and this district is on the more moderate end. Ossoff fits that bill.”
Meanwhile, Handel has accepted fundraising help from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the district, but she regularly says that she is “not an extension of the White House.” It’s a move that some Republicans said may not excite the GOP base. But it also appeals to voters in a longtime Republican district that swung harder against Trump in 2016 than all but five House seats in the entire country.
The national stakes
Trump won the district by under 2 points in November, and he is no more popular there now. That is the single biggest factor that made this race a nationally watched battleground, and Democrats are hoping the same backlash in affluent suburbs will help them in districts from California to Virginia next year.
“Republicans have to deal with the balancing act of the traditional suburban GOP voter and the more conservative, rural voters,” said Craig Kidd, the first vice chairman of the Fulton County Republican Party. “Georgia’s 6th District is to Trump what the rural districts were for Bill Clinton in 1993. As soon as Clinton was seen as a liberal, Democrats got crushed in those seats and in 1994, Republicans gained them.”
But Trump is not the only national figure intruding on this local special election. Republicans have wielded House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is also widely disliked in the district, against Ossoff. Ads from Republican groups have cast Ossoff as a puppet of liberal interests and a “rubber stamp [for] Pelosi’s failed agenda,” said Corry Bliss, the executive director of the GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund.
Some Republicans argue the anti-Pelosi message has gotten stale after seven years, but if Handel wins Tuesday night, that will only reinforce the idea that she remains a potent driver of votes for the Republican base — just as Trump animates Democrats.
Will last week’s congressional shooting affect the vote?
An Illinois man opened fire on GOP lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists practicing for the congressional baseball game last week, seriously wounding Majority Whip Steve Scalise and several others. The shooter had a long history of posting anti-Trump comments online, and the wall-to-wall coverage has Democrats worried about “the impact of the shooting” on driving GOP turnout, said one national Democrat involved in the race.
The Republican Party chairman in Georgia’s 11th District echoed that sentiment. “The shooting is going to win this election for us,” Brad Carver told The Washington Post. “Because moderates and independents in this district are tired of left-wing extremism.”
Meanwhile, Handel and Ossoff’s campaigns both said they received threats following the attack in Virginia. “Suspicious packages” were delivered to Handel’s home, per a statement from her campaign last week.
Recruitments and retirements
Candidates and incumbents eyeing the high-profile Georgia race (and the circumstances that led to it) are inevitably asking the question: Should I jump in or should I jump ship?
“You will see more and more Republicans who are having private conversations — and more who will say it publicly — about their concerns over the administration and the direction of the presidency,” said Chip Lake, a Republican consultant in Georgia. “A lot of members are going to start thinking: Do I want to deal with this, or would I rather retire and relax?”
Several Democrats have already cited the Georgia race as inspiration for their own campaigns, including Andy Kim, a former Obama administration official who launched a campaign against Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur on Monday in a tricky New Jersey district.
“When I see Jon Ossoff is able to raise millions in a matter of months and weeks, that makes me feel like, if I find the right message and I’m the candidate I hope to be, I’m someone who can take on someone as rich as MacArthur,” Kim said. “People are fired up, and we need to harness that energy.”
Special elections are still special
Win or lose, the Georgia special election is a snapshot of a single Southern suburban district, 18 months away from 2018. If Democrats win, it’s not a guarantee they will steal Speaker Paul Ryan’s gavel. If Republicans win, it won’t change the circumstances that made this previously unlikely district competitive.
“We know what we’re up against in 2018,” Lake said, adding that Republicans “have our work cut out for us.”
A loss for Ossoff could puncture the Democratic enthusiasm, but the anti-Trump fervor that fueled the financial machine behind Ossoff won’t go away, according to Democratic supporters on the ground in Georgia.
“People will find another candidate to latch on to,” said Donna Aranson, a 66-year-old preschool administrator and an Ossoff supporter. “Once this is over, I’ll just find the next candidate who I want to support. Win or lose, this isn’t going away. Ossoff created a movement.”
The other special election
Georgia isn’t the only state with a special House election Tuesday night. Republican Ralph Norman and Democrat Archie Parnell are also facing off in South Carolina’s 5th District, which was left open by another Trump appointee, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney.
However, Norman is a heavy favorite in a more Republican-friendly district. Trump won the district with 57 percent of the vote in 2016; crucially, he even improved on Mitt Romney’s share there.