The special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District is set for April 18. A field of 18 candidates is vying to replace Tom Price, who gave up the congressional seat to become President Donald Trump’s secretary of health and human services. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

In Georgia special election, Republicans fight Ossoff and each other

Republicans are sharpening their attacks on each other even as they scramble to block Democrat Jon Ossoff from scoring an upset victory with one week to go until the nationally watched special election to represent a suburban Atlanta district in Congress.

The all-out scramble is taking place in all corners of the 6th District, which stretches from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County. And as the Republicans in the race compete for what could be one runoff spot against Ossoff, national GOP groups are trying to undermine his campaign.

Ossoff is facing a new wave of attacks from conservative groups hoping to avert an embarrassing defeat in the most competitive race since Donald Trump’s election as president. The district, last held by Tom Price before he was tapped to be Trump’s health secretary, has been in GOP hands since Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Tom Price’s congressional seat is vacant since he accepted a position in the Trump administration.

Millions of dollars have poured in from conservative groups outside the district to ensure it stays that way, including $3 million from a group with ties to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan that has hired nearly 100 field staffers and funded a blitz of attack ads.

The Democrat has plenty of ammunition to fight back. He raised more than $8.3 million, largely from out-of-state donors frustrated with Trump, as Ossoff has turned into a symbol of the resistance to the president. He collected checks from nearly 200,000 donors, for an average of less than $50 per contributor.

He’s also taken advantage of the deep divisions that have riven the 11 Republicans on the April 18 ballot. They’re increasingly clashing in public over policy, including sharp disagreements over health care proposals and loyalty to Trump.

But the more visible battles are raging on the airwaves, on computer screens and in mailboxes and voicemail boxes across the district. Much of it is aimed at a trio of leading GOP contenders all competing for the same slice of the electorate: Karen Handel, Bob Gray and Dan Moody.

Democrats, meanwhile, are increasingly hopeful that Ossoff can achieve what was once considered unthinkable: winning the race outright. He’s already spent $6 million boosting his campaign, and he’s likely to pump much of the rest of his campaign cash — more than $2 million remains in his account — in a final push.

And Democrats are hoping Ossoff, who has emerged as the unquestioned leader in a field that includes four other Democrats, will benefit from the campaign muddle. All 18 candidates will share the same ballot, regardless of party, and a June 20 runoff awaits the top two vote-getters if no candidate gets a majority.

“There are way too many candidates in the race,” sighed Brian Bonser, a Dunwoody Republican who is split between three or four GOP contenders. “I normally tune out the negative ads, but this is frustrating. And what’s worse is the phone calls.”

‘No one owns me’

Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, entered the race with the highest name recognition thanks to her 2006 statewide victory and two failed campaigns since then for governor and the Senate. But she’s been pummeled by a relentless round of attacks from the Club for Growth, a conservative group backing Gray.

The attacks depict her as a squishy conservative, and more recently they have lumped together her and Moody, a former state senator, as a “two-headed tax-and-spend monster” as both rise in the polls. Both dismiss the attacks as misguided assaults on their budget votes in elected office.

Gray depicts himself as a “willing partner” to Trump but faces ongoing criticism from several other Republican contenders about just how supportive of the president he was during the primary. He claims the attacks are off-base, and he points to pictures of him making calls at Trump’s Georgia headquarters.

Stark policy divisions, meanwhile, have erupted over some of the nation’s most pressing issues.

Gray and Moody both said they would have supported the controversial, and failed, House GOP health plan, with Gray invoking a variation of Ronald Reagan’s aphorism that “80 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.”

Judson Hill, another former GOP senator, took up the opposing line, contending it would have cut access to health insurance. Other candidates, including Handel, have simply vowed to be a reliably conservative vote to repeal Barack Obama’s signature health law.

It has also cleaved Georgia’s Republican establishment, forcing a proxy war between influential political networks. U.S. Sen. David Perdue filmed an ad for Moody that proclaimed him “one of us,” while former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich backed Hill. And Handel picked up former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ endorsement.

As the vote nears, a gaggle of Republicans trailing in the polls have assailed their rivals. Some of the sharpest attacks have come from Bruce LeVell, who led Trump’s diversity coalition and calls himself the only truly independent candidate in the race because he rejected help from outside groups.

“No one owns me. I’ve totally disavowed all PACs,” the Dunwoody business owner said at a recent forum, eyeing his opponents. “You’ll see who owns each candidate. They don’t own Bruce LeVell.”

And David Abroms, a GOP executive running as a consensus-builder, slammed both Ossoff for a flood of out-of-state donations and the Congressional Leadership Fund for running a “disgraceful, disgusting ad” that criticizes Ossoff by invoking Osama bin Laden.

“They are using the 6th District as a political football,” Abroms said.

He turned on Monday to Evan McMullin, a conservative who ran for president last year as an independent, to boost his struggling campaign.

“Character matters a lot, and David is the kind of leader who cares about all Americans. And we need leaders like that," said McMullin, who has known Abroms a few months. "We need a new generation of leaders in this country, and David will be part of that.”

Eyeing a first-round knockout

Ossoff has spent the final weeks trying to build on polls that show him hovering above 40 percent of the vote.

The $6 million he has poured into the race has allowed his campaign to target not just likely Democratic voters but also moderates, independents and households that haven’t cast ballots in primaries in years. And he’s unleashed a network of field operatives and door-to-door canvassers that have marveled even his Republican opponents.

That was on display over the weekend as hundreds of volunteers crowded street corners in Brookhaven, Sandy Springs and east Cobb waving signs urging drivers to “Vote their Ossoff.” And it shows in early-voting analysis that appears to give Democrats an advantage.

“This is a way for me to feel like I’m making a difference,” said Jan Yanes, an east Cobb Democrat who cast a ballot for Ossoff. “It’s got to start somewhere.”

The muddled field has allowed Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide, to stick to an above-the-fray strategy even as his TV ads call him the only candidate who can “stand up to Donald Trump.” But a head-to-head matchup in a runoff against a Republican — with the full weight of the GOP behind him or her — could neutralize Ossoff’s advantages.

Republicans are hopeful a wave of attack ads that paint Ossoff as a liberal stooge and an inexperienced newcomer will keep him under the 50 percent threshold, though some privately worry he could pull off a stunning victory.

And Ossoff has eagerly floated that possibility, telling supporters across the district that an April 18 victory is in his reach. He told dozens of people crammed into a stuffy campaign office in Chamblee on Saturday that a win next week will “send a message that will be heard across the state and the country.”

“We’re in the homestretch now. I know we can do this," he added. "There aren't enough attack ads on television to overcome the real grass-roots movement.”

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