Democrat Jon Ossoff’s trail of blue through Georgia’s 6th District flowed from the working-class Tucker suburb to the antique shops of Chamblee through the southern stretch of fast-urbanizing Dunwoody and blossomed across much of Sandy Springs.
It darted north from there, hugging the spine of Ga. 400 — and the MARTA line — curving to the doorsteps of downtown Roswell and into the office parks of Alpharetta before jotting east toward the country club subdivisions of Johns Creek.
Republicans entered last week’s special election fearful that Ossoff might win the race to succeed Rep. Tom Price outright. They were right to worry: If not for big GOP margins in east Cobb and a sweep of nearly all of Milton, residents of the north Atlanta district would now be calling Ossoff their Congressman.
Instead, he and Republican Karen Handel face a June 20 runoff that could well be the most expensive U.S. House election in the nation’s history. It is both tug-of-war between national Republicans and Democrats and an electoral test for Donald Trump, who has waded deep into the election.
For metro Atlanta, though, it’s a different type of barometer. Residents are coming to terms with the notion that their turf is suddenly competitive: A 30-year-old first-time candidate outpolled Republicans in areas so conservative that Democrats often don’t even bother to enter local elections.
Tony Rainieri runs a barbershop in the edge of a Johns Creek precinct that Trump easily won in November but that Ossoff carried five months later. Swiveling in his cushy barber’s chair, Rainieri said voters are worked up over the election.
“I vote for my pocketbook — and I cut Steve Handel’s hair,” he chuckles, waving to a spot on a wall where a picture of the candidate’s spouse sometimes hangs. “But I’m not stupid. I see how the younger generation has swung. It’s going to be so dang close.”
Much of the angst stems from Trump, who struggled mightily in most of the meandering 6thdistrict. John McCain and Mitt Romney overwhelmingly carried the territory in 2008 and 2012; Trump eked out a victory there in November by less than 2 points.
Toconnicer Parker likes what she hears from Ossoff, a former congressional aide who talks about cutting wasteful spending and fighting for women’s rights. But what really matters to her is the message that his victory would send to the White House.
“It’s a referendum on Trump, and I want to send a signal that we’re upset,” says Parker. “I don’t like what he stands for or what he says.”
Parker, who works in finance in Alpharetta and lives in a Roswell precinct that backed Ossoff, rarely votes in special elections and won’t be seen waving yard signs on street corners or going door-to-door for the Democrat. Her teenage daughter pulled her into the race after a chance encounter with Ossoff at a high school rally.
“This will say that we want something different than Trump,” Parker says. “And these Republican areas, they’re not as safe for him anymore.”
Whether Ossoff can mount an upset victory over Handel might hinge on the vote in a few fast-changing neighborhoods.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of precinct-level voting data illustrates the challenge both candidates face in the runup to the election. And one of the biggest proving grounds will be Sandy Springs, the populous city on the district’s southern boundaries.
In last year’s presidential election, Hillary Clinton won most of the eastern stretch of the city, where towering apartment complexes rise near live-work-play developments. Trump carried its western edges, which stretch to riverfront neighborhoods overlooking the Chattahoochee. Ossoff and the Republicans largely split the city in last week’s vote.
A precinct on the red side of the city’s dividing line tells the tale. It’s home to 1,900 voters, and it has long been reliably Republican. More than 82 percent of its voters are white; just 3 percent are black. Price captured nearly 65 percent of the precinct’s support in November. In short, it shouldn’t be competitive.
But it is. Trump barely carried the precinct in November. And Republicans only edged out Democrats there on Tuesday by a scant seven votes.
“It’s where the city meets the suburbs. You’ve got a mix of people and a mix of priorities,” says Drew Evangelista, a 40-year-old management consultant at his home in the precinct. “The left is motivated, and it’s the Republicans peril if they ignore it.”
Across the river, an east Cobb precinct surrounding the Indian Hills Country Club shares similar demographics — but far different results. Trump won it by nearly 57 percent of the vote, and Republicans fared slightly better on Tuesday. Still, those numbers are far short of the roughly 70 percent Romney captured in 2012.
The Trump factor looms large to voters in the neighborhood. Katende Kinene, dropping off books at a nearby library, was drawn to Ossoff’s “Make Trump Furious” slogan.
An immigrant from Uganda, he says he was so infuriated by Trump’s election that he cast a ballot in a special election for the first time in his nine years in Georgia. Now he’s considering contributing to Ossoff’s campaign.
“I’m just concerned about some of the rhetoric,” says the 38-year-old marketing specialist. “It’s just so negative, and I don’t appreciate it.”
The Trump dilemma
Other voters are invigorated by Trump’s call to defend the district, which he’s made in a series of tweets attacking Ossoff and urging Republicans to vote.
Pete Borden, an 81-year-old retired builder, walks five miles a day in a shopping center near the country club. He proudly voted for Handel in part because she was “less negative” than the other 10 Republican contenders. But his vote had as much to do with Trump, whom he supported in November.
“Ossoff has made a claim that he’s going in there to fight the president,” Borden says as he made his daily rounds, “and that’s non-productive, as far as I’m concerned.”
This time around, he adds, he’ll actively campaign for Handel: “It’s got me concerned. I’m going to be out pushing for Republicans to go vote.”
Even in the district’s most conservative strongholds, Trump’s struggles could haunt Republicans. A Milton-based area in the upper reaches of Fulton County should be a Republican dream: Three in four voters are white, and they have a serious conservative bent. Trump won 72 percent of the vote.
And yet he didn’t perform as well as other Republicans. GOP candidates Tuesday combined for 75 percent of the vote, and Price won the precinct with 84 percent. Those numbers hint at the perils of running close to Trump, which Handel has signaled she’ll do.
“Republicans were walking away from him,” says Jim Coonan, a Democratic strategist, of the 6th District’s November vote. “Not all, of course. Not a majority. But a statistically significant share. There was a swing vote.”
‘Months of negativity’
The all-out battle over the last three months was just a taste of what’s to come.
The tidal wave of advertisements and intense national attention will continue, with politicians and pundits pondering whether this contest heralds a Trump-era electoral realignment.
Trump could invoke the race next week during a visit to the National Rifle Association’s convention in Atlanta, and other Republican heavyweights could soon make the pilgrimage. Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez pledged the party’s full support at an Atlanta stop two days after the vote.
Washington-based super PACs and other outside groups will pour in millions of dollars more into the contest. Already a national fundraising dynamo, Ossoff likely will exceed his $8.3 million first quarter haul; his campaign raised $500,000 more in the hours after his first-place finish.
And Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, will benefit from a circle-the-wagons rallying effect. Her shoestring campaign is expanding fast after her No. 2 finish. And her former GOP rivals have rushed to her side and once-bitter rivals — including Gov. Nathan Deal and U.S. Sen. David Perdue — have pledged their support.
One of her newest allies is Ronald Bridgeman, a 69-year-old shopping last week at a grocery store in a Sandy Springs precinct along Roswell Road that Ossoff carried by a few dozen votes. He voted for Republican Dan Moody because he was “a little more believable” than the other GOP contenders, but is ready to back Handel.
“I think it’s going to be two more months of negativity,” he sighs, saying he wished he could fast-forward to the runoff vote in June. “But I’m not going to vote for Ossoff no matter what.”
If voting trends continue to shift, though, the district may continue to get attention long after June’s vote.
A leafy area along busy Old Alabama Road in Johns Creek illustrates why. Five years ago, Barack Obama barely managed to capture one-third of the vote there. In November, Clinton nabbed 44 percent. And last week, Democrats pushed it to 49 percent.
That growing number includes Carol Portillo, who initially backed Ossoff as a way to defy Trump but warmed to the young Democrat after seeing his ads. “Now I like him,” she says.
Handel supporters in the neighborhood waver between confidence and anxiety. Fernando Oballe, a chiropractor who lives in the area, tells friends unnerved by Trump to give him time to let the “drastic change” settle in.
“People are scared and nervous about change,” he says, “but you’re already seeing the positives.”
Ask Rainieri, the barber, about the June vote and he’s not so sure it’s a GOP given.
“People are so familiar with Karen Handel. And this area — it’s just hard to think of it as purple,” says Rainieri, as he paced the shop. “But times are changing.”
Staff writers Michelle Baruchman, Amanda Coyne, Mitchell Northam and Isaac Sabetai contributed to this report.