Candidates in Georgia's 6th Congressional District race Republican Karen Handel, left, and Democrat Jon Ossoff shake hands after a debate Tuesday, June 6, 2017, in Atlanta. The two meet in a June 20 special election. (Branden Camp/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Ossoff has the edge over Handel in AJC poll of 6th District race

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released Friday shows Democrat Jon Ossoff has a 7-point edge over Republican Karen Handel in the nationally watched race to represent Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.

The poll of likely voters has Ossoff leading Handel by 51 percent to 44 percent ahead of the June 20 runoff. About 5 percent of voters are undecided. The margin of error is 4 percentage points.

Both national parties have poured astonishing resources into the race, which some see as a bellwether for next year’s midterm elections. The race is by far the most expensive contest of its kind, and Ossoff has shattered fundraising records by raising more than $23 million.

The poll, conducted by Abt Associates, is one of several recent surveys that show Ossoff with an advantage — although most show a tighter margin. They suggest that Ossoff is in a commanding position in the race’s final days — but that Handel is just within striking distance.

The demographics favor Republicans in the suburban Atlanta district, which has long been in GOP hands. But Democrats hope President Donald Trump’s struggles — he narrowly won the district in November — and energy around Ossoff can help them pull off an upset.

More: Georgia 6th District poll crosstabs

The poll found that Ossoff, a 30-year-old filmmaker who was relatively unknown before entering the race, is the more popular candidate in the contest. Some 52 percent of voters gave him a favorable review. Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, logged a positive rating with 42 percent of voters.

The gender gap between the two candidates was about as wide as it has ever been. Ossoff holds an enormous advantage over Handel among women, leading 60 percent to 34 percent. And Handel — seeking to be Georgia’s first GOP congresswoman — leads Ossoff among men 52 percent to 41 percent.

There are stark divides between older and younger voters, too. Ossoff holds the edge among younger voters, especially with those under 39. Handel won a slim majority of 6th District residents who are over 65.

Handel has tried to win the vote by mobilizing the GOP base and playing to conservative themes, but Ossoff faces a more precarious path: He has tried to appeal to liberals infuriated by Trump, as well as moderates and independents who typically vote for the GOP.

The poll suggests the message could be working. He’s capturing about 13 percent of Republican voters and 50 percent of independents — a crucial voting bloc that leans to the right. It shows almost no crossover on the flip side; only 3 percent of Democrats say they’re backing Handel.

Handel and her supporters have cast Ossoff as out of touch with the district, and they assail him for living outside its borders. That message is resonating with Republicans, 83 percent of whom consider it a factor in their vote. Nearly half of independents and 80 percent of Democrats said it’s not a concern.

It’s an issue for Mark Salmon, 52, of Fulton County, who supports Handel. “She can vote for herself,” Salmon said, pointing out something Ossoff cannot do.

An overwhelming majority of voters from both parties are unfazed that Handel lacks a college degree. About two-thirds of residents said it’s not a factor in their vote.

Trump factor

Trump’s presidency has helped shape the race, and Handel aggressively embraced him after her No. 2 finish in the April 18 vote. Yet the poll showed the dangers of tying herself to his presidency.

Only about one-third of voters in the district approve of him, and 1 in 4 Republicans give him an unfavorable review. Eleven percent of his supporters in November said they have a dim opinion of him.

Still, a plurality of voters — 45 percent — said their support or opposition to the president didn’t play a role in their vote for Congress. About 40 percent of voters said their vote aimed to send a message that they opposed Trump — including more than three-quarters of Democrats.

Sharon Loughran said Trump did not influence her decision to vote for Ossoff, but she did express a need for checks and balances.

“It’s not healthy for our government not to have a little bit of checks and balances and to be one-sided with the majority in all one political party,” said the 55-year-old retired teacher from Cobb County.

Voters in the 6th District offered better reviews for Vice President Mike Pence, who held a fundraiser for Handel on Friday at the Cobb Energy Centre. The poll gave him an approval rating of 44 percent, compared with an unfavorable rating of 48 percent. Eighty-four percent of Republicans gave the vice president a favorable rating.

And the poll reinforced why Handel and Republicans have relentlessly sought to tie Ossoff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a favorite foil of the GOP. Nearly 60 percent of voters give her a poor rating, including 9 in 10 Republicans.

Health care policy is by far the most important issue for the district’s voters, with 81 percent saying it’s an extremely important or very important priority. That includes 90 percent of those who voted for Hillary Clinton in November.

It also points to looming Republican issues over the GOP attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Just one-quarter of voters said they approve of the House’s health care plan, and the poll shows tepid support even among Republicans.

Steve Pastor, 68, of Sandy Springs is voting for Ossoff, and health care plays a big part in his decision.

“I am still working partly because I’m afraid they’re going to destroy Medicare,” said Pastor, who also opposes the GOP health care plan. “I think it’s time for a single-payer system.”

While Salmon is voting for Handel, he also expressed reservations about the Republican plan.

“I’m concerned the GOP is going to do what the GOP does so often,” he said, “they’re going to (mess) things up.”

The poll was conducted June 5-8 by Abt Associates and involved 1,000 registered voters. Of those polled, 46 percent identified themselves as Republican or Republican-leaning and 44 percent identified themselves as Democrats or Democratic-leaning.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin and Kristina Torres contributed to this article.