The race to replace former U.S. Rep. Tom Price is more than an early test of President Donald Trump’s popularity. It’s also a bitter battle between powerful Republican factions and a proving ground for Democrats who hope Trump helps them win conservative areas.
Eighteen candidates qualified to run this week for the April 18 special election to succeed Price. And the fight over the suburban Atlanta district, which spans from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County, could fast become a template for the 2018 election.
For Republicans, the biggest debate might be how aggressively to embrace Trump in a district that he carried by just 1 point in November. Candidates range from Trump loyalists to establishment-friendly politicians who hardly mention his name and play up their independence from his White House.
Democrats see a tantalizing opportunity to swipe a district that Price, who was confirmed last week as Trump’s health secretary, won with 62 percent of the vote. And some party leaders are banking on an untested newcomer with impressive fundraising chops to pull off the upset.
With so many candidates in the race — more than a dozen paid the $5,520 fee before qualifying ended Wednesday — the race is wide open. Adding to the unpredictability, all the candidates will be on the same ballot regardless of their party. A June 20 runoff between the top two vote-getters seems a guarantee.
Already, the president looms large over the race.
Former state Sen. Dan Moody and ex-Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel hardly mentioned Trump’s name in announcing their bids, and Judson Hill, who resigned his state Senate seat when he qualified Monday, was careful to walk a line when asked what role the president would play.
“The 6th is a conservative district, a district where people want their principles and values stood up for every day,” Hill said. “President Trump won the state, won the district, and I believe it’s important that we move forward to transform Washington.”
They will face stark challenges from the right flank by a handful of candidates who cast themselves as the president’s biggest defender.
Former Johns Creek Councilman Bob Gray vowed to be Trump’s “willing partner.” And Bruce LeVell, who headed Trump’s diversity coalition, described himself as the only candidate in the race who was with Trump through “thick and thin” to fight for his policies.
“And once in Congress, I will be President Trump’s strongest ally to make that vision come true,” he said.
The five Democrats in the race have their own delicate balancing act. Jon Ossoff, who has the endorsements of U.S. Rep. John Lewis and several other party leaders — as well as $590,000 that the left-leaning Daily Kos website has raised for him so far — was careful not to be too critical of Trump.
“The presidential election result here showed the voters in this district judge candidates rather than political parties,” said Ossoff, an investigative firm executive. “They’ll look very carefully at what we have to offer and make decisions on what we have to bring as individuals instead of based on the letters next to their names.”
Trump vs. establishment
Since the race is among the first congressional contests since Trump’s victory, it is poised to be flooded with outside money and attention.
It’s one of the more affluent and highly educated districts in the South, and it has been a launching pad to national prominence for the past three lawmakers to hold the seat: Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and Price, now Trump’s top health official.
Republican power brokers are quickly picking sides. The political network behind U.S. Sen. David Perdue and former Gov. Sonny Perdue — Trump’s pick for agriculture secretary — has lined up behind Moody, a Johns Creek executive expected to dig deep into his own wallet to finance his campaign.
“The time for talking is over,” Moody said in his announcement, “and the time for doing has arrived.”
Several former campaign aides to Gov. Nathan Deal are siding with Hill, while LeVell and Gray are divvying up other veterans of the Trump campaign.
But the biggest name in the race is Handel, a former Fulton County chairwoman who was elected as Georgia’s first Republican secretary of state in 2006 and narrowly lost primary contests for governor in 2010 and for the U.S. Senate in 2014.
In between, she became a darling to religious conservatives when she resigned from a leadership role in the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation in 2012 after it reversed its decision to cut ties with the abortion rights group Planned Parenthood.
And she made clear Wednesday, shortly after formally qualifying for the race, that she would be willing to defy Trump if necessary.
“If nothing else, I’m independent. My job, first and foremost, is to represent the best interests of the 6th,” Handel said. “There will be many times when I’m supportive of the president’s initiatives, and when I’m not, my job is to make them work better for the 6th.”