GOP looks to dust off 6th District playbook in midterms

Last year's special election in Georgia's 6th Congressional District attracted record-breaking amounts of outside money and attention because it was seen as an early referendum on Donald Trump's presidency. A year later, Republican officials in Washington are signaling they plan to use similar tactics to drive turnout in the upcoming midterm elections.

GOP-aligned groups helped attract pro-Karen Handel voters to the polls last year by framing Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff as a would-be puppet of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, whom they posed as an existential threat to Trump and his agenda in Washington.

U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, the head of the House GOP’s campaign arm, indicated the party plans to use such strategies honed in the 6th District race last summer to drive base voters to the ballot box once again this year.

“We know how to use him to motivate our voters and I think we can use him in almost any district in this country because of the fact that there are people that love him everywhere,” Stivers said of Trump in an interview with regional newspaper reporters late last week.

Trump remains a divisive figure in Georgia, according to a recent pair of AJC/Channel 2 polls of likely primary voters, but he remains wildly popular among likely GOP voters. They gave the president an 80 percent approval rating. Meanwhile, his approval rating among Democrats was a dismal 7 percent, with about 9 in 10 of the party's primary voters disapproving of his tenure in office.

Trump carried Georgia's 6th District by slightly more than 1 percentage point in 2016, but Handel still embraced him ahead of the special election runoff, appearing on the same stage with him and accepting his fundraising help. She ended up winning the district by more than 3.5 percentage points.

Both parties in Washington are closely watching the early stages of the 6th and 7th District races before deciding how much they plan to get involved this fall. Both seats are held by Republicans, but House Democrats, feeling emboldened by Trump’s divisiveness and sustained civic activism on the left, have targeted both suburban Atlanta seats as potential pickup opportunities.

Stivers was tight-lipped about the party’s approach to Georgia’s 6th District this year beyond emphasizing get-out-the-vote initiatives. The party invested millions in television ads and canvassers to do just that ahead of the special election, and “it worked,” he said.

“We’ll (run) some digital and other media get out the vote campaigns through the fall” this year, Stivers said. “We’ve got a couple cards up our sleeve that I’m not going to talk about on get out the vote, but we’ve got a couple of new things that we’re going to be previewing in the fall.”

Handel has been quietly amassing a large war chest in recent months as a quartet of Democrats has tangled for the chance to take her on in November. The Roswell resident has so far refused to engage with any of her potential challengers in person or in the press, but recent fundraising notices from her campaign signal she plans to focus on the GOP tax bill and Pelosi in the months ahead.

Stivers' comments about embracing Trump on the campaign trail came shortly after his Democratic counterpart, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, signaled the party was urging its candidates to focus less on the president and more on policy issues in their campaigns. Next door in the 7th District, the seven candidates challenging GOP incumbent Rob Woodall have taken divergent approaches to Trump.

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