By Robert Costa and Paul Kane,
CHAMBLEE, Ga. — Thousands of voters in the suburbs north of Atlanta grabbed the country’s attention Tuesday as a special congressional election neared its end as a referendum on President Trump.
Polls in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District opened at 7 a.m. on a humid morning, with commuters casting ballots with iced coffees in their hands on their way to child-care centers, office parks and downtown Atlanta.
Back in Washington, party leaders — and Trump — were paying close attention to what has become the most expensive House race in history, hoping to make the case by day’s end that they were better positioned to jump-start Trump’s stalled agenda on Capitol Hill — or thwart it.
“KAREN HANDEL FOR Congress,” Trump tweeted as day broke Tuesday, touting the Republican candidate and former Georgia secretary of state. “She will fight for lower taxes, great health care strong security — a hard worker who will never give up! VOTE TODAY!”
Democrats spoke excitedly about Democrat Jon Ossoff, 30, a polished former congressional staffer who has raised more than $23 million and built a devoted grassroots following, all while courting Republicans by bemoaning “wasteful” spending. They see his competitive candidacy in ruby-red suburbia as a possible harbinger ahead of next year’s midterm elections, when Democrats need to win 24 GOP-held seats to reclaim the House majority.
The race also could have a more immediate impact on Trump’s priorities. Republicans are laboring to agree on legislation to revise the Affordable Care Act. A GOP win on Tuesday could bring new momentum to their push to pass a bill in the Senate, while a defeat could embolden those who are concerned about the bill to more forcefully oppose it.
Handel and Ossoff are vying to fill the seat vacated by Tom Price, who held it from 2005 until he joined Trump’s Cabinet this year as health and human services secretary.
A record turnout is expected: About 120,000 people have already voted, according to Georgia officials — nearly a quarter of registered voters here.
In another early tweet, Trump took a swipe at Ossoff’s centrist positioning and dismissed him as a liberal who “wants to raise your taxes to the highest level and is weak on crime and security, doesn’t even live in the district.” Ossoff lives just outside the district with his fiancee.
Despite the contest’s national sheen and implications, many voters here said they will make their decision based less on Trump and more on how they view the two candidates, whose salvos have inundated televisions in a clash that has grown bitter and tense.
That dynamic could complicate the import that this race will carry beyond Tuesday. Special elections are often seen as instant microcosms of the national mood, but they are not always indicative of coming political waves.
Strategists on both sides note that the amount of resources and attention this race 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.”
In this race, Trump has been everywhere and nowhere. Both contenders have mostly avoided talking about him at length in the final days. Handel has focused on turning out establishment, Trump-wary Republicans with classic GOP appeals, while Ossoff has talked up his willingness to be a bipartisan voice.
“As I’ve gone door to door for Jon, I’ve been speaking mom to mom on issues like health care, not about Trump,” Jennifer Wilson, 52, a school counselor, said as she gathered with fellow volunteers Monday in nearby Roswell for Ossoff’s election eve event.
Wilson said Ossoff’s age, as well as GOP attacks on his residency, have been hurdles.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, he’s only 30.’ But I tell them that Jon is someone who understands the area,” she said. “He grew up here and wants what they want: to bring high-tech and bio-tech jobs to our community.”
On Monday night, Ossoff never mentioned Trump once, even as TV trucks parked outside the shopping center where his campaign office is located and cable channels took the scene live in prime time. Homemade posters on the wall — scribbled in thick strokes with the slogan “Humble. Kind. Ready to fight” — did not mention Trump, either.
Ossoff — standing before a raucous crowd of hundreds, his sleeves rolled up — spoke passionately about women’s rights, gay rights and the urgency of addressing of climate change. He knocked “those cynics in Washington, D.C.”
“There are people across this district, across this state, across this country who have lost faith,” Ossoff said, his voice quieting. “In this room, right now, is the team that can help to begin to restore that faith.”
Volunteers chanted, “Flip the 6th! Flip the 6th!” and waved blue signs in the air as Ossoff and his fiancee, Alisha Kramer, shook hands as they left.
“It’s a huge moment,” Mike Magallenes, 67, said as he looked on. A retired carpenter who lives in San Diego, he flew here over the weekend to offer Ossoff his time and perhaps witness a Democratic upset.
“I want to send a message even if that’s not what this is all about,” he said. “It’s got to start somewhere. Win or lose, it’s got to be the start.”
Steve Levine, 60, a salesman from Marietta, said Ossoff’s chances would be tied to turnout in cities such as Chamblee in the district’s southern tier, which is home to many younger and minority voters.
“The suburbs of Atlanta are changing dramatically,” Levine said. “Chamblee and other spots have significant Asian and Hispanic communities. They’re full of people who have moved here from all around America.”
Other Democrats worried that the district’s Republican voters would come around on Tuesday, even as Trump’s controversies cause headaches.
“Karen is going to get support because this is a place where Fox News is on all the time, whether it’s a doctor’s office or at the gym,” Evelyn Lewis-Wilson, a real estate broker in Roswell, said. “That’s the way it is.”
Her friend, Sandra Jackson, agreed — with a caveat.
“Is this Fox News land? Of course,” Jackson said. “But I do think there is a hidden Democratic vote out there who won’t talk about it at work but aren’t too happy with Trump or what the Republicans are up to.”
Win or lose, Ossoff’s campaign will provide a frame for an ongoing debate 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.
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 has scrambled to consolidate the district’s Republican voters.
“We have a great candidate,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran civil rights leader, said as he campaigned Saturday alongside Ossoff. “Smart, young and just good.”
With Trump’s status as a political outsider who has violated political norms as backdrop, Handel and her supporters have pointedly embraced her experience and welcomed high-profile Republicans such as Price and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor, as surrogates, knowing that most well-educated and wealthy voters here prize stability over populism or ideological purity.
Over the weekend, Handel, who has been active in social conservative circles for years, avoided discussing Trump but knocked Ossoff as someone with “San Francisco” values who identifies with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). It was an unsurprising attack meant to rouse regular Republicans but also a sign of her uneasiness with how to align with Trump.
At Handel’s final campaign event Monday in Roswell, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) boasted of having spent 17 years in Congress before becoming governor, the sort of insider trait candidates normally hide these days. Deal said that Ossoff “never had a real job.”
As Deal spoke about how Handel would be the first woman to serve in Georgia’s congressional delegation, he kept returning to her credentials.
“We are hungry for qualified, capable women that carry the Republican banner,” Deal said.
Handel supporters seemed genuinely puzzled by the attention the 6th District has received, given its decades of support for Republican candidates, going back to Newt Gingrich, who began a long stint in 1978 when he won it while Jimmy Carter was in the White House.
Carolyn D. Meadows, a member of the board of the National Rifle Association, has lived in Cobb County her entire life, active in conservative politics since she was a “Goldwater Girl” during the 1964 election.
“No, we’re not a swing state, and we’re not a swing district,” said Meadows, who brought her granddaughter to Handel’s final event. She added that she started responding to every pollster who called her home out of fear that conservatives who detest pollsters would decline such calls and skew the results, leading to a liberal bent.
Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) implored Handel supporters to prove what he believes to be the truth about a district that Price held so comfortably for 12 years.
“It’s a conservative seat. It’s a conservative seat,” Collins said.
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 Republicanism. He won it over Hillary Clinton by only one percentage point in last November’s general election — and lost it to Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) in the GOP primary.
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.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), has spent more than $7 million on its campaign against Ossoff and launched a field program.
The spending and national interference has only fueled tensions.
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.
For Trump, the consequences could be immediate Tuesday night, even though some of the race’s twists have little to do with him.
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 and Republican turnout, 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 talks about the race and ramifications.
A Democratic victory could rattle Senate Republicans as they try to pass 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.
A Republican victory would be demoralizing for Democrats, especially after they lost recent special elections in Montana and Kansas.
“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.
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.”
Sean Sullivan and Karen Tumulty in Washington contributed to this report. Kane reported from Sandy Springs, Ga.