The race to replace Price could be an early test of Trump’s popularity

U.S. Rep. Tom Price could be confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Donald Trump’s health secretary as early as this week, and the race to represent his affluent suburban Atlanta district could be an early test of the new president’s popularity.

More than a dozen candidates are lining up to run in the contest, which is poised to be one of the first congressional elections since Trump’s victory, and the contenders range from liberal Democrats running against the president to hard-right conservatives who promise to be his biggest ally.

A former statewide officeholder who could be the first Republican woman to represent Georgia in Congress is expected to soon announce her candidacy, and a businessman who aims to be the first Muslim Republican in the U.S. House is already running. The head of Trump’s diversity coalition said he’s on the verge of joining the race.

A half-dozen or so current and former lawmakers are in the field. So are self-styled outsider business executives who say they are willing to dig deep into their own bank accounts to fund their campaigns.

And while the timing of the race is still uncertain — Gov. Nathan Deal won't schedule the election until Price is confirmed — the shadow campaign is over. Many candidates have formally announced, and one Republican — state Sen. Judson Hill of Marietta — is openly advertising a fundraiser in the middle of the state's legislative session.

The election will have vast implications. Nationally, the winner could be seen as an early test of Trump’s popularity in an establishment-friendly district that never really cozied up to him during the presidential campaign. The contest seems destined to attract plenty of outside cash and attention.

And locally, the victor will represent a wealthy swath of north Atlanta’s suburbs, from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County, that has been a proven springboard to higher office. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson preceded Price, who harbored ambitions of being the House’s leader or running for governor before being tapped by Trump.

“This one could be fun,” said Mark Rountree, a Georgia pollster. “And there’s no telling what could happen — not this early.”

A wide-open race

Unpredictable is an understatement. Two factors help explain why it’s difficult to forecast: Special elections normally produce low voter turnout, and each of the candidates will be on the same ballot regardless of party affiliation. A runoff between the two top vote-getters seems all but guaranteed.

The cost could be astronomical as well, taking place in one of the most expensive television markets in the nation. While some Georgia congressional campaigns hardly muster seven-figure expenses, this race could be one of the costliest special elections in state history. Already, candidates are raising cash or making bold promises to supporters about how deep they’re willing to dig into their own wallets.

On paper, the race should be the GOP’s to lose. Price won a commanding victory for another two-year term in November with about 62 percent of the vote. But Hillary Clinton came within a whisker of winning the district, and Democrats hope they can consolidate behind a single candidate to land a spot in the runoff.

There's no clear front-runner, but a December poll by Rountree's Landmark/Rosetta Stone firm showed former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel in the lead with about 20 percent of the vote. More than half of the electorate was undecided — a sign of how wide open this race is.

Handel hasn’t formally announced yet, but she is likely to join the race once Price is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. That could come this week after a key committee approved his nomination on Wednesday. Handel, a former Fulton County Commission chairwoman, ran for governor in 2010 — when she was narrowly defeated by Deal in a runoff — and made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2014.

Hill hopes geography plays to his favor. The attorney has represented a conservative state Senate district that swings from east Cobb to Sandy Springs since 2004, and he is the only high-profile candidate from Cobb County in the race.

He also has proven fundraising ability, having raised about $800,000 for his state Senate campaigns — with two-thirds of the money coming from businesses and groups with lobbyists at the Capitol.

The first to formally enter the race, Hill’s off to a fast start. He’s been making the rounds for weeks, including trips to Washington for Trump’s inauguration. And he held a fundraiser on Tuesday amid the state’s legislative session, which is usually forbidden for candidates of state office but permitted for Hill since he’s running for a federal office.

‘I’m really close’

Two other heavyweights could soon join the race. Former state Sen. Dan Moody has been rumbling about a run for months, and if he joins the race, he’s likely to self-finance. And Bruce Levell, a Dunwoody jeweler who was head of Trump’s diversity coalition, has already pledged to serve only eight years and not take donations from special interests if he ran.

“I need a couple more meetings, but I’m really close,” he said at a recent event in Washington with potential donors. “There’s a lot of inquiries about me running, and I just need to figure it out.”

A gaggle of other confirmed Republican contenders are already on the stump. Johns Creek Councilman Bob Gray is running as Trump's "willing partner" and has the backing of one of the president's former Georgia strategists. Roswell businessman Kurt Wilson, who once considered mounting a primary challenge against Price, put "Time for Term Limits" in his campaign logo.

And Cobb County economist Mohammad Ali Bhuiyan, who led an aborted effort to hold a Nobel peace summit in Atlanta, is advertising himself as potentially the first Republican Muslim member of the U.S. House — and an enemy to "out of control" government spending.

“Washington has become a center of power to serve and protect special-interest groups and is no longer good for ordinary citizens,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest unknown is whether Price's wife, state Rep. Betty Price, will join the field. She said she won't announce her decision until her husband is confirmed, though her supporters say she is still seriously considering a bid.

Democrats hope to unify

The Democratic side is almost as jumbled. They hope that Trump’s presidency can galvanize their supporters, though landing an upset victory on solidly conservative turf seems unlikely unless they can unify behind a sole candidate.

So far, three Democrats are in the running: Former state Rep. Sally Harrell, former congressional aide Jon Ossoff and ex-state Sen. Ron Slotin.

Harrell enjoys the support of some local legislators, including state Rep. Scott Holcomb, and Slotin is vying to be the "progressive" voice of the district. But it's Ossoff who has commanded the lion's share of the attention and fundraising dollars.

The 29-year-old, who runs a firm specializing in anti-corruption investigations, entered the race with endorsements from U.S. Reps. John Lewis and Hank Johnson. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he's lined up more than $250,000 in financial commitments from supporters. And he's raised more than $500,000 through the Daily Kos liberal advocacy site.

He’s also benefited from being in a civil rights icon’s orbit. He was with Lewis and Johnson at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport over the weekend to protest Trump’s immigration policy, and Lewis has called on Democrats to pick Ossoff.

“We should unite behind him,” Lewis said, “and send a clear message that Donald Trump doesn’t represent our values.”