Exhausted 6th District voters prepare for vote

With spending in the 6th Congressional District race now hovering around $40 million, voters have seen a barrage of flyers hit their doorsteps or fill their mailboxes. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

With spending in the 6th Congressional District race now hovering around $40 million, voters have seen a barrage of flyers hit their doorsteps or fill their mailboxes. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Richard Krider gets so many calls from the campaigns of Jon Ossoff and Karen Handel he has stopped counting.

Matt Walczak could start a recycling business with the number of flyers he’s received.

And Mike Zauzig just tells the parade of people who’ve plodded to his Roswell home to turn around. He’s already made up his mind.

The unavoidable crush of attention on the 6th Congressional District runoff has swept through metro Atlanta like no other local election, upending a district used to landslide votes.

Radios and TV screens are awash in ads fueled by an unprecedented political spending spree, so many that one local station started a separate newscast just to field more of them.

Campaign signs cover busy intersections and quiet streets, while message boards crackle with complaints of brazen thefts.

And small armies of volunteers spend weekends marching on leafy neighborhoods, armed with carefully calibrated scripts and high-tech electoral gadgets.

Just how deeply has the June 20 runoff touched the district’s residents? Consider this: A majority of voters — 54 percent — told pollsters commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they have been contacted in person by Ossoff’s campaign. About one-quarter have been reached face-to-face by Handel’s backers.

And that barrage of TV ads is having an impact as well — even if many prefer not to admit it. About one-third of 6th District residents report the campaign spots influenced their vote, including almost equal numbers of Democrats, Republicans and independents.

All those deep-blue Ossoff and stark-white Handel signs have their own part to play. About 14 percent of the electorate say their friends’ and neighbors’ opinions make a difference. With margins as close as they are in this race, the neighborly touch matters.

The prevailing sentiment beneath it all: 6th District residents see this race as uniquely important. Whether voters view the election as a way to rebuke or protect President Donald Trump, a bellwether for next year’s midterms or a chance to assert their independence, there’s a consensus that it matters.

The poll shows a majority of the district’s residents — 52 percent — say next week’s vote is more important than past elections, and 45 percent say it’s at least as important as earlier contests. Only 3 percent say it’s less significant than previous votes.

“I’m glad there’s this much attention paid to it,” said Lynn Savage, a 72-year-old Dunwoody retiree. “And now I hope for the outcome I would like to see.”

Then again, she’s quick to add that the amount of money being spent on the race — the tally now hovers around $40 million — is downright “sinful.”

“How many schools could that money improve?” she lamented. “It’s a lot of money.”

Fear of failure

This race wasn’t supposed to be this competitive.

U.S. Rep. Tom Price won the district by 24 points in November, just before Trump tapped him as his health secretary and left the seat wide open. The lines were drawn to elect a Republican. But Trump’s early stumbles and Ossoff’s emergence have shaken up the race.

The president carried the district by the skin of his teeth in November, and the area’s residents remain deeply skeptical of him. Only 35 percent give him a favorable rating — and nearly 60 percent are critical. That includes 11 percent of his supporters in November.

Zauzig, a Roswell software engineer, is as blunt as he can be about his vote for Ossoff. He doesn’t care a whit about the local dynamics of the race.

“It’s all about sending a message to the Republicans about the state of the country. All politics are local? No way. Not for me,” the 58-year-old said. “We have a disaster right now. It’s time to send a message.”

Some Republicans are just as adamant about giving the president some breathing room.

Walczak, a Marietta tile estimator, said he’s leaning toward Handel in part because he’s concerned about her opponent’s experience, but in part because the president “deserves a chance.”

“Trump’s only been in the job for six months,” said Walczak, 48. “He can’t fix everything in six months, and he can’t screw everything up in six months.”

And then there are those frustrated that the race has been nationalized.

“It really shouldn’t feel like an all-stakes thing because it’s a local contest,” said Patti Kastens of north Fulton County. “Unfortunately, the Democrats are trying to make it a mandate on Trump and his policies. But I think for a lot of people locally it’s not that way.”

With less than two weeks to go, fear of embarrassment is spurring both sides.

Democrats are desperate for a victory after special election defeats in Montana and Kansas, and they hope an upset win provides a path to flipping other suburban districts they’ll need to retake the U.S. House next year.

And Republicans hope to thwart what would be a devastating defeat in territory that once was safely red and avoid what they figure will be cast nationally as a repudiation of GOP policies.

‘I’m going to miss all this’

Ossoff’s financial firepower has allowed him to launch an avalanche of ads. But it’s also given him the resources to cast a wider net and reach out to voters who rarely back Democrats.

The AJC poll found about one-third of Republicans say they’ve been contacted by Ossoff’s campaign — roughly the same proportion of GOPers who said Handel’s camp reached them.

One of them is Mark Salmon, a north Fulton County financial adviser who is backing the Republican. His phone has been ringing off the hook this campaign, and he’s noticed something surprising when he picks it up.

“Funny thing about it, but the ones I have answered were not from Karen Handel,” said Salmon, 52. “They were from the other guy.”

Steve Pastor, a Sandy Springs telecom worker, has taken to the blitz by hunkering down. He and his wife have been inundated with calls, mailers and knocks on the door that sometimes amount to dozens of contacts a day.

“My wife has given up answering the phone,” he said.

It’s rare to find a voter who has only had one interaction with either campaign. Many report being contacted again. And again. And again.

At least 10 different polling firms have surveyed Krider, a retired IT manager from east Cobb County. His phone is lit up with what seems like constant robo-calls. And he’s been visited twice by Ossoff supporters; the return trip yielded a sign that adorns his lawn.

Krider can cut a lonely figure in the district. Not only is the 67-year-old a rare “liberal” in a staunchly conservative area, he has another confession to make.

“I’ve actually enjoyed it. I’m happy there’s a race going on,” Krider admitted.

“I’m going to miss all this on June 21. I really am.”