President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to tap U.S. Rep. Tom Price as his health and human services secretary has triggered a scramble to represent his solidly conservative suburban Atlanta district.
At least six state legislators, a former statewide officeholder, a former state senator, a prominent immigration attorney, an influential Trump backer and several wealthy political newcomers are considering a bid to replace the six-term Roswell Republican.
Some analysts are predicting the race to represent the 6th District, an affluent swath of the Atlanta suburbs that stretches from north DeKalb and Fulton counties to east Cobb County, to be one of the most crowded and expensive special election contests in Georgia history.
“Special elections are the most unpredictable events. You don’t know who the electorate is, and it’s extremely difficult to get people to show up,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist and former aide to Gov. Nathan Deal. “And there’s no front-runner. In a field this big, you have no front-runner until someone writes a giant check.”
The district’s demographics also pose a challenge for the dozen or so potential Republican candidates eyeing the race.
Although Price won his six terms with relative ease, many of the Republicans in the establishment-friendly north Atlanta suburbs spurned Trump. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida won the district in the GOP presidential primary in March, and Trump eked out a razor-thin victory there in November despite carrying the state by 5 percentage points.
“It’s an economically conservative, socially libertarian district on the main,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, a former head of the Georgia GOP. “It’s conservative, but it’s more of a centrist conservatism. They want fewer regulations and fiscal responsibility. But they want the least, the lost and the left behind not to be least and lost and the left behind.”
Republicans are favored to hold the seat, but Democrats vow to field a promising recruit. Several high-profile Democrats live in the district, including state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a U.S. Army veteran and attorney, and state Rep. Taylor Bennett, a onetime Georgia Tech quarterback who narrowly lost a re-election bid this month.
When Holcomb was asked why he thinks his party might have a shot at the open seat, he responded with one word: “Trump.”
“It’s a tough race, but the right candidate could raise all the money necessary,” he elaborated. “The district is not looking for a rubber stamp for Trump.”
The earliest the election could be held is in February, as Price is not likely to resign until he’s confirmed by the U.S. Senate. His confirmation vote is expected in late January, and state law requires the governor to call for a special election at least 30 days after the vacancy opens. If nobody wins a majority of that vote — which is nearly a certainty in a crowded race — then a runoff would be held between the top two finishers.
The jockeying for Price’s seat will color a legislative session already expected to be roiled by battles over “religious liberty” legislation, Second Amendment rights, immigration crackdowns and sweeping health care changes. Sitting lawmakers would have to resign to qualify, but they’d use their platform to push red-meat legislation and rail against their opponents.
State Sen. Brandon Beach, one of three GOP senators interested in the seat, said it’s hard not to consider a run for a seat that typically opens once every decade or so.
“This just happened last night, but I’d be foolish not to look at the opportunity,” said Beach, an Alpharetta Republican who heads the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. “But I’m only interested right now in serving Georgians and making sure we have policy that’s pro-business, less regulations and less taxes.”
A quartet of women are also among the potential contenders for the seat and could make history as the first Republican congresswoman from Georgia.
Former Secretary of State Karen Handel and state Rep. Betty Price, Tom Price’s wife, have tremendous name recognition in the district. And state Rep. Jan Jones is the highest-ranking woman in Georgia GOP politics as the No. 2 in the House chamber. Former Johns Creek Councilwoman Kelly Stewart is also scouting the race.
“I am proud to call Congressman Price a friend and I know he will continue to serve our country well,” Handel said in a statement Tuesday. “Steve and I are humbled by the outpouring of encouragement and we are seriously considering how to best serve the constituents of Georgia’s 6th District.”
Several political newcomers could jump in. Charles Kuck, a prominent immigration attorney, said he was considering a bid. So is Bruce LeVell, a Dunwoody jeweler who headed Trump’s diversity coalition. He said he would claim Trump’s “drain the swamp” mantra and run as a swashbuckling reformer should he get in the race.
And former state Sen. Dan Moody has told several rivals and other political figures that he’s willing to dig deep into his own pockets to run for the open seat, a financial advantage that could set him apart from his rivals.
Just as important is the right message and tone for a district uneasy with Trump that seems unlikely to elect a hard-right conservative. Paul, the Sandy Springs mayor, said he’s hoping voters choose a young conservative with a penchant for working across party lines and building consensus.
“You’ve got to demonstrate you know how to work inside a legislative body to accomplish things, to build coalitions to get things done,” Paul said. “Lone wolves need not apply.”