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An 18-candidate debate shows how jumbled Georgia special election is

Independent candidate Alexander Hernandez makes the move to be the first of 18 hopefuls in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District to speak to the crowd at a forum Wednesday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Marietta. The special election is set for April 18. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)
Independent candidate Alexander Hernandez makes the move to be the first of 18 hopefuls in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District to speak to the crowd at a forum Wednesday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Marietta. The special election is set for April 18. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

The vast field of candidates racing to represent Georgia’s 6th Congressional District kept the escalating feuds with each other largely beneath the surface and instead focused on a range of competing ideologies on tax overhauls and health policies Wednesday at the first major event featuring all 18 contenders.

The leading Republican candidates backed proposals ranging from reducing corporate income tax to a dream of eliminating all taxes. And Democrats in the April 18 special election voiced support for tax breaks that would help startups and smaller businesses.

There was outspoken criticism of the failed House GOP health plan from much of the field, aside from several candidates who said they would back the plan and cast blame on House Speaker Paul Ryan — and not President Donald Trump — for its implosion.

Some candidates struggling for attention and fundraising dollars tried to break from the pack with calls for sweeping proposals and catchy introductions to an audience of more than 100 executives at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Others just kept an understated profile during the event.

The BrandBank forum was the first major gathering of all the candidates in the race, and it underscored how jumbled the contest is. Eleven Republicans, five Democrats and two independents will all share the same ballot, and they’re scrambling to land what would likely be a single spot on the ballot in a runoff against Democrat Jon Ossoff.

The district, spanning from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County, has been in Republican hands since Jimmy Carter’s presidency. But Trump barely carried the district in November, and the special election to replace Tom Price in the U.S. House is an early test of the president’s popularity and his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Ossoff, who sat in the middle of the extended stage, has given Democrats hope he can flip the district with his “Make Trump Furious” campaign. He’s raised more than $3.5 million for his bid, and as his lead in the polls has solidified, Republicans have spent more than $2 million to cast him as inexperienced.

Meanwhile, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said Wednesday that the president would be willing to “support the team and help the team” if his campaign muscle is needed in Georgia.

‘We’re actually dying’

The behind-the-scenes sparring between Republicans scrapping for an expected June 20 runoff spot stayed largely out of focus as the candidates honed their answers about tax policies. Some candidates took an ambitious approach to the question.

“I believe in getting rid of all the taxes,” said Bruce LeVell, a jeweler who led Trump’s diversity coalition. “That’s how we grow our economy. We have to attack all the taxes. We’re actually dying and we’re taking care of all these programs and entitlements on our backs.”

Several Republicans hewed to traditional conservative themes by saying they would take aim at corporate tax rates and reducing regulations.

Former state Sen. Dan Moody said the nation has been “delinquent” in not overhauling the Internal Revenue Service sooner. Republicans Judson Hill, Bob Gray and Karen Handel all backed sweeping tax cuts as well to jolt the economy.

“We’ve had, in the 6th, a pretty good economic recovery, but it’s not great,” said Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state. “It was more of a reset or a recalibration. Because post-Great Recession salaries for most people haven’t fully recovered.”

Ossoff embraced a familiar Democratic strategy by calling for the elimination of tax breaks for special interests and new incentives for startups and smaller organizations.

“A country says a lot about its values by how it balances its books,” he said, adding: “We absolutely can find ways to tighten the belt in federal government, but we can do so without imposing those costs” on the poorest residents.

‘Making sausage’

The candidates also clashed over the scuttled House GOP health plan, which has divided politicians and residents in Price’s home turf.

David Abroms, a GOP newcomer running as a business-minded outsider, said the measure was “ill-conceived and poorly run” because Republicans failed to reach out to their constituents.

And Amy Kremer, a tea party organizer, said Ryan was to blame for not cobbling together enough support for the bill. Her solution, she said, was simple: “You make Congress live under the same rules as you and I and it will get fixed real quick.”

Several others wholeheartedly supported the health proposal. Gray, an ex-Johns Creek councilman, said he looked at it through a “business point of view” and praised the plan for reducing premiums. Citing his legislative experience, Moody cast it as a first step.

“It’s like making sausage — you have to perfect it once it starts. This was the beginning of a three-step process that the speaker rolled out. I would have supported it and worked hard for it,” he said. “I would have voted yes.”

The left-leaning candidates in the contest were eager to pan the bill. Ossoff said lawmakers need to “break out of this partisan trench warfare to do the nuts-and-bolts legislating. And Democrat Rebecca Quigg, a physician, slammed Georgia Republicans for refusing to expand Medicaid.

“The math shows we need that Medicaid expansion money,” she said. “These are real people, and they are suffering because of the decision.”

Candidates in 6th Congressional District special election

A field of 18 candidates is running to fill the congressional seat that Tom Price vacated to become the secretary of health and human services. The election is set for April 18, and with such a large number of candidates, a runoff is almost certain. It would be held June 20.

Republicans

  • David Abroms: A business executive and former congressional aide.
  • Mohammad Ali Bhuiyan: A Cobb County economist who led an aborted effort to hold a Nobel peace summit in Atlanta.
  • Keith Grawert: A U.S. Air Force pilot and Dunwoody resident who wants to "return public service to Washington."
  • Bob Gray: The former Johns Creek councilman and business executive is running as a "willing partner" with President Donald Trump and has hired several of the president's onetime Georgia field operatives to run his campaign.
  • Karen Handel: As a former Georgia secretary of state who also at one time served as chairwoman of the Fulton County Commission, she has deep roots in north Fulton County and remains a power broker in the area. She also enjoys high name recognition throughout the district, thanks in part to her 2010 campaign for governor and 2014 campaign for the U.S. Senate.
  • Judson Hill: While in the state senate, Hill represented an area stretching from Cobb County to Sandy Springs.
  • Amy Kremer: A tea party activist and cable news pundit.
  • Bruce LeVell: The Dunwoody jeweler headed Trump's diversity coalition. He also once led the Gwinnett County GOP and served on MARTA's board for five years.
  • William Llop: A Sandy Springs accountant who said he will run as a "financial expert" who can help reduce the federal debt.
  • Dan Moody: The former state senator from Roswell is also a U.S. Army veteran who served on the state Department of Transportation board.
  • Kurt Wilson: A Roswell small business owner who is campaigning on term limits.

Democrats

  • Ragin Edwards: The east Cobb County resident is a sales manager.
  • Richard Keatley: A college professor from Tucker and a U.S. Navy veteran who pledges to fight to make college debt-free.
  • Jon Ossoff: The investigative filmmaker once worked as a congressional aide and has the endorsements of U.S. Reps. John Lewis and Hank Johnson.
  • Rebecca Quigg: The physician is making the preservation of the Affordable Care Act the centerpiece of her campaign.
  • Ron Slotin: A former publisher of Atlanta Jewish Life, Slotin represented a north Atlanta district in the state Senate until he launched an unsuccessful bid in 1996 to oust U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney.

Independents

  • Alexander Hernandez: A political newcomer, Hernandez is running on a platform of boosting Medicare spending, supporting new investments in infrastructure and backing term limits.
  • Andre Pollard: A Milton computer systems engineer who is running on a tech-friendly platform.