Outside forces try to shape Georgia congressional race

Powerful outside forces aim to shape the free-for-all race to represent a swath of north Atlanta's suburbs in Congress, pouring millions of dollars and lining up influential endorsements in a brutal battle over the conservative-leaning 6th District.

Georgia elections have long attracted out-of-state donors and special-interest groups. But the April 18 election to fill the vacancy Tom Price left for a Cabinet post is attracting outsized national attention as the most competitive federal contest in the nation since Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Political action committees, congressional power brokers and Trump allies have chosen sides in the race, and a flood of money raised by a liberal advocacy group backs a Democrat hoping to flip the district for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president. A 2016 presidential candidate has even weighed in.

The ad wars are already well underway, with several candidates in the race launching a commercial blitz with five weeks to go before the election. With all 18 candidates on the same ballot, regardless of party, a June 20 runoff between the top two vote-getters is almost certain.

The biggest factor in the race, though, may prove to be another non-Georgian force of nature: Trump.

He carried the district — which sweeps from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County – by only a whisker in November. And the low-turnout affair could hinge on whether his supporters return to the polls — or energized Democrats bent on handing the president an electoral defeat show up in force.

Making a statement

The biggest flurry of national activity revolves around Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker with support from influential state Democrats and a “Make Trump Furious” campaign mantra.

He's picked up the endorsements of several Washington-based political action committees, including one that aims to overhaul the campaign financing laws and another one founded by former presidential candidate Howard Dean. And he's been profiled by a string of national media outlets.

But his biggest ally may be the left-leaning Daily Kos website, which has helped him raise more than $1.1 million of the roughly $3 million his campaign said he's collected since entering the race in January. (Federal disclosures verifying those figures won't be available until April.)

“We want to make a statement,” said Judith Lamet, a 73-year-old retired attorney from Pittsfield, Mass., who donated to Ossoff.

“I have to oppose Trump. I can do it locally, but my representatives and senators are Democrats,” she added. “They pretty much agree with my positions on things. So if I want to make any changes, I have to look beyond my state.”

Republicans have scrambled to try to define Ossoff, knowing that he could deprive the party of both slots in a runoff for a seat the GOP has held since 1979. A super PAC backed by House GOP leaders unleashed a $1.1 million ad barrage with footage of Ossoff, dressed as Han Solo, while a Georgetown University student.

His supporters quickly picked up on the "Star Wars" theme, casting him as a rebel fighter aiming for the Trump regime: "District 6 has a New Hope," a counterattack said. And Ossoff rushed out a trio of ads that depicted him as a "relentless warrior against corruption."

Of shovels and water wars

Across the aisle, conservative powers are making behind-the-scenes moves to keep the seat in GOP hands.

Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, the presumptive front-runner in the race, picked up the endorsement of the Susan B. Anthony List, a national conservative group that opposes abortion rights.

Onetime state Sen. Dan Moody turned to Hollywood adsmith Fred Davis, who honed U.S. Sen. David Perdue's image as a jean-jacketed outsider, for a debut round of ads featuring him with a shovel and a resigned look trailing braying donkeys and harrumphing elephants.

And David Abroms, a political newcomer who is sinking $250,000 of his own fortune into the campaign, has hired the Florida-based former campaign manager for independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin to advise his race. That strategist, Joel Searby, said Abroms is drawing from McMullin's national base of donors and volunteers.

“There’s no doubt this is a really important race for both parties and the country’s political class,” Searby said. “And the focus of the national interest on this race is about capitalizing on the pent-up energy on the left and the right.”

But the biggest Republican coup so far might have come from ex-state Sen. Judson Hill, who on Monday earned the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

The Florida Republican easily won the district in last year's presidential primary, and he called Hill a "proven leader who can help us get our nation back."

The endorsement instantly triggered a flurry of interest in Hill’s campaign. But it also could prove a double-edged sword. Gov. Nathan Deal’s top aide, Chris Riley, took to social media to remind the district’s voters that Rubio once wanted to “take Georgia’s h20 & send us the bill.”

He was referring to Rubio's decision last year to wade into the decades-long dispute over water between Georgia and Florida, capped by a speech the Floridian gave in April blasting the way the federal government is handling the conflict.

Some of their rivals hope the tide of outside interest offers them an opening.

Bruce LeVell, who was chairman of Trump’s national diversity coalition, has picked up support from a string of Trump surrogates seen nightly on cable news. But he’s said he’s turned down support from three PACs, including one that threatened to target him if he didn’t accept the help.

“This is why people supported Donald Trump — because he rejected the special interests,” said LeVell, who owns a Dunwoody jewelry shop. “This is what I’m fighting. And this is why these guys are aggressively spending so much money.”