The sight wasn’t exactly a typical one for this leafy corner of Sandy Plains. Almost a dozen barrel-chested, leather-clad bikers — led by a quartet of clean-cut high school students, no less — were marching from house to house asking whether these 6th Congressional District voters planned to support Republican Karen Handel in Tuesday’s special election.
“We’re here to put Karen Handel where she needs to be,” one of the bikers, a member of Bikers for Trump, told a voter at his front door, “in D.C. supporting President Trump.”
For nearly all the 10 or so motorcyclists in the group, it marked their first time canvassing for a political candidate.
And they aren’t alone.
Tuesday’s special election to replace Tom Price in Atlanta’s affluent northern suburbs has generated an unprecedented amount of voter enthusiasm, money and attention, locally and beyond.
People who have never before been civically active or participated in political campaigns have cut checks, joined social media groups and even volunteered their time to help shape what many see as a uniquely important race with national implications.
For some voters, including the members of Bikers for Trump, it’s about sending a clear-cut message to the entire country: that Georgia is a red state and fully behind Donald Trump.
“It’s about the Republican Party,” said Brian Strzalkowski, a power company lineman who was part of the canvassing group. “We support Karen Handel because she supports President Trump.”
Democrats’ ground game
Democrat Jon Ossoff’s campaign has also attracted a flood of grass-roots volunteers, many people who had never been politically active before November’s election.
Ossoff’s campaign said it’s attracted 12,000 volunteers who have helped call likely voters, held parties in their houses to discuss the race with their neighbors and knock on more than half-a-million doors. Indeed, an eye-popping 54 percent of 6th District voters questioned in a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll said they had been contacted in person by Ossoff’s campaign.
Luisa Wakeman was aiming to add an additional dozen voters to that list Tuesday, just a few miles from where the Bikers for Trump members had canvassed days earlier.
A 50-year-old flight attendant from Marietta, Wakeman wasn’t politically active until this year.
“I had thought you couldn’t talk about being a Democrat or a liberal here,” Wakeman said of the typically ruby-red 6th District.
But after Hillary Clinton’s loss in last year’s election, Wakeman dove headfirst into PaveItBlue, a local civic activist group, and began spending nearly every day off volunteering on Ossoff’s behalf.
“We can’t sit back and watch. We’ve got to get involved in order to make change,” she said. “I don’t want to regret it on June 21.”
Only 16 percent of respondents to a recent AJC poll said in-person visits or phone calls from political campaigns had an impact when they were selecting who to vote for in the 6th District race.
But Mark Rountree, a pollster with the Republican-leaning firm Landmark Communications who is unaffiliated with the AJC’s survey, said those one-on-one contacts are remarkably effective.
“Canvassing, especially if it takes place in the last 72 hours of the election, has a direct impact on turnout, much more so than TV or mail or phoning,” he said. “It’s a direct human interaction. You step into people’s way, so to speak, and they have to stop what they’re doing and focus on you.”
That’s why outside groups beyond the two campaigns have also funneled millions into reaching out to voters in the 6th.
The Republican National Committee deployed 15 staff members to Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties starting in March to coordinate its get-out-the-vote operation. And the Congressional Leadership Fund has an even more robust operation: the Republican super PAC has funneled roughly a quarter of the $4 million it’s spent on the runoff into its ground game.
Across all groups, operations are going into overdrive for the final days of the race.
Corry Bliss, the Leadership Fund’s executive director, said the organization is directing its 135 paid canvassers to focus their last-minute efforts on the nearly 140,000 voters who narrowly favored Republicans or voted in the 2016 GOP primary but not in the first round of the 6th District contest.
“The message to that group is that (Ossoff is) a liberal Democrat who can’t be trusted,” Bliss said. “If the people in Georgia 6 know that Jon Ossoff has raised millions of dollars from Nancy Pelosi and liberal Democrats in California because he agrees with them on every issue, that matters to the voters of Georgia 6. He can’t win.”
Handel, meanwhile, has her own ground operation. The Republican’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for information about its current efforts, although roughly one-quarter of respondents to the the AJC’s poll said they had been reached face-to-face by Handel canvassers.
Ossoff’s operation has drawn attention for not only its scale but who it’s targeting.
The Democrat has advertised himself on traditional Republican turf, including on country music stations and talk radio, readers have reported. And several GOP voters said their homes had been visited once, if not several times, by Ossoff canvassers — marking the first time a Democratic candidate’s campaign had ever reached out to them in person.
“I live in a community with 1,300 homes, an 18-hole golf course and 14 tennis courts. It’s very tough to canvass because it’s so large,” said Peter Korman of Roswell, a member of the 6th District GOP’s executive committee and a local precinct captain. “And Ossoff had three teams of three people apiece, all in their teens and early 20s … approaching every home.”
Korman said they even approached a neighbor who had a Handel sign in her yard.
The strategy is unusual, but Rountree said there likely aren’t enough solidly Democratic voters in the 6th District for Ossoff to win outright just with their support.
“The numbers are there for the Republicans to win” with just their own votes, Rountree said. The key for Handel, he added, is focusing on turnout. Ossoff, meanwhile, needs at least some independents and Republicans to win.
The nontraditional outreach appears to have paid off for Ossoff, at least up until now. An estimated 1 in 5 Republicans voted for the Democratic newcomer during the first round of voting April 18.
Bliss, from the Congressional Leadership Fund, said Ossoff’s luck will run out Tuesday.
“He can knock on Republican doors every hour for a month and it’s not going to make a difference,” he said.