Georgia Democrats, Republicans seek lessons in tight Kansas race

Tuesday’s results in a special congressional election in Kansas have Georgia Democrats looking for similarities and state Republicans looking for differences as next week’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District approaches. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Tuesday’s results in a special congressional election in Kansas have Georgia Democrats looking for similarities and state Republicans looking for differences as next week’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District approaches. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Republicans survived a scare in Tuesday's special congressional election in Kansas, the first major vote since Donald Trump's presidential victory. And Democrats hope the vote portends good news for them in the next election — next week's contest in Georgia to succeed Tom Price.

Republican John Estes’ single-digit victory over Democrat James Thompson came in a Kansas district that Trump won by a whopping 27 percent just five months ago. And it took a sweeping GOP rescue effort that featured a robo-call from the president and visits by Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz to help Estes notch the victory.

Trump had far more tepid support in November in Georgia's 6th District, a swath of suburban Atlanta he carried by less than 2 percentage points. And Jon Ossoff, the leading Democrat in the crowded race, has attracted far more fundraising dollars and national attention than the little-known challenger to Estes in Kansas.

That combination has frazzled Republicans sounding the alarm that a district that elected Price — now Trump’s health secretary — in landslide victories could fall into Democratic hands.

“If Jon Ossoff’s fundraising numbers weren’t enough of a wake-up call for Republicans, the election results in Kansas should be,” Georgia GOP strategist Chip Lake said.

Key dynamics in the races are certainly different: While national GOP groups rushed in to Kansas over the past week to play defense, they have been pouring millions into attack ads against Ossoff for months. Estes was helped by a tide of rural voters — a factor largely nonexistent in the suburban 6th District. And Estes’ struggles were also seen as a rebuke to unpopular Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

"Those states don't have a highly unpopular governor that is going to have the proverbial millstone around the candidate's neck," Michael O'Donnell, a Kansas GOP commissioner, told The Wichita Eagle on whether the vote signals trouble for Republicans in Georgia and other upcoming special elections.

What’s more, the Kansas race featured just three candidates while Georgia’s race has 18 hopefuls sharing the same ballot. A June 20 runoff looms if no candidate gets a majority vote, but Ossoff is aiming for an outright win — and is hovering in the mid-40s in recent polling.

“It’s like Dorothy — we’re not in Kansas anymore,” said Heath Garrett, a Republican strategist and adviser to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. “Kansas was a cavalry call for Republicans. It wasn’t a panic alert.”

But there are also some telling similarities between the two contests. Democrats and other Trump critics in Kansas rallied around Thompson in hopes of dealing the White House a staggering defeat in its first months. And skittish Republicans eager to avoid a devastating setback pulled out all the stops to defend their turf.

Even as GOP strategists grow more unsettled about the Democratic turnout in Georgia — one worried operative sent a text of Ossoff supporters massing in deep-red Johns Creek — some conservatives said they are unfazed.

“I’m not worried at all by what happened in Kansas,” said Lauren Raper, an east Cobb County Republican. “Good will triumph. I know it.”

The leading Republican candidates in the scrambled field, meanwhile, have focused more on targeting each other than blasting Ossoff. A new wave of attack ads unleashed this week by Bob Gray and Dan Moody took aim at Karen Handel, the former Georgia secretary of state who leads the GOP candidates in most public polls.

National Republicans, meanwhile, have spent more than $3 million on ads that cast Ossoff as an inexperienced stooge of U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and targeted him for his work as an investigative filmmaker with Al-Jazeera. Ossoff has called those ads “smear attacks” meant to distract voters.

And GOP candidates in the crowded field seized on the Kansas results to urge supporters not to grow complacent, though they said they were unconcerned by the margin of victory.

“He won,” Handel said Wednesday at a Sandy Springs event. “I feel very good about where I am and where this district is. Look, we are a little fractured right now, but on April 18 when the votes are counted we will all come together on the morning of the 19th and get ready to kick some Ossoff.”

Georgia GOP analysts took stock in a glimmer of good news: Estes pulled off the victory despite early voting that heavily favored Democrats. Conservative operatives have nervously tracked early-voting results in Georgia, too, that initially seem to favor Ossoff’s campaign.

But even the most optimistic Republicans pointed to an enthusiasm advantage that is, for now, clearly tilted in Ossoff’s favor. He has thousands of volunteers to augment dozens of paid staffers fanned across the district, and the more than $6 million he’s spent on the contest has helped him reach nontraditional Democratic voters.

In an interview after a Brookhaven campaign stop, Ossoff said the Kansas vote sent another bolt through his campaign.

“It was closer than expected. And if what was going on there is anything like what happened here — the intensity of grass-roots engagement in politics in this community right now is maybe unprecedented,” Ossoff said, adding: “It’s part of the reason this is a winnable race.”

And Lake, the GOP strategist, said the Kansas results have already sent a signal to other Republican candidates in seemingly safe districts that running a textbook strategy might not be enough.

“It was a close race,” he said, “and it shouldn’t have been.”

6th Congressional District special election

A field of 18 candidates is running in a special election to represent the 6th Congressional District, which stretches from east Cobb County across north Fulton County to north DeKalb County.

Election Day: April 18. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Early voting ends Friday. If a runoff is necessary, it will be held June 20.

Coming Sunday: A voter's guide to the top candidates.