The 6th Congressional District vote on Tuesday is more than an opportunity for Democrats to score an early victory against President Donald Trump and his agenda.
It’s also a chance for Democrats to test a different sort of message in fast-changing suburban districts that they’ll need to retake the U.S. House.
That’s because the wealthy and well-educated suburbs spanning from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County are exactly the kinds of places that Democrats see as the key to their future. And it’s why both parties have turned Atlanta’s suburbs into a last stand, pouring more money into the contest than some major presidential candidates managed to muster last year.
After getting trounced in November in the rural, blue-collar districts they once controlled, Democrats hope a cocktail of changing demographics in conservative-leaning suburban seats mixed with grass-roots anger against Trump will return them to power in 2018. That could start with the candidacy of Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide.
And Republicans see Tuesday’s vote as a chance to send a message of their own: that Democrats can’t compete in GOP bastions with centrist-sounding messages that they see, as Karen Handel so often says, as “fake.” Many are casting their vote as a defense of Trump, a stand for conservative values or a strike against national Democrats who think they understand Georgia.
By just about any metric, the race is neck-and-neck, and analysts from both sides of the partisan divide often say it’s a coin flip. Ossoff has marshaled more than 12,000 volunteers who have relentlessly contacted voters across the territory; Handel has had a string of big-name Republicans, starting with Trump, help her rally conservatives to her side.
Two of those high-profile supporters gave a pep talk Saturday to a crowd of more than 200 people at a steamy airport hangar. Former U.S. Rep. Tom Price and ex-Gov. Sonny Perdue — both now Cabinet members — played up the sweeping implications of the race.
“This is a harbinger of national politics. The world is looking, the nation is looking — and all the money has flowed in here,” Perdue said. “Don’t be fooled by someone who doesn’t have a record.”
Ossoff campaigned Saturday with U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who helped spark his interest in politics.
“The hours you spend today can make the difference,” Ossoff told a group of volunteers. “There are a lot of folks counting on us now. Let’s continue to unite people.”
Math and maps
The Democrats need 24 seats to retake the U.S. House next year, and party leaders see places such as the 6th District and other suburban regions in California, Florida and New York as the most fertile ground.
The metro Atlanta territory is projected to favor Republican candidates by about 8 percentage points above the national average, making it the 165th-most-Republican-leaning in the country according to the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political analysis firm.
But Cook also estimates that the district has been quickly moving toward the center in recent years. And the theory goes, at least among some Democratic leaders, that if Ossoff wins on Tuesday and Trump remains in the White House, a score of other changing House districts that are currently held by Republicans could also be winnable for the Democrats in 2018.
“It really is a new map,” said Chip Lake, a former GOP congressional staffer who is now a campaign strategist. “The dynamic of Donald Trump has certainly, at least temporarily, created a new map of competitiveness.”
In practice, though, it could be much more difficult for Democrats. This contest is the premier election in 2017, which has helped both Ossoff and Handel attract unprecedented gobs of money and attention from out-of-state voters and groups. Many Georgia Republicans say no candidate of either party can count on replicating that in 2018, when 435 House seats, 33 Senate positions, 36 gubernatorial slots, and thousands of state and local offices are on the ballot.
Ossoff’s fundraising haul of more than $23 million has smashed records that likely won’t soon be matched, and the tide of grass-roots enthusiasm is hard to maintain.
“Because of the sheer amount of money that went into this, it’s just really difficult to make the case that this is somehow indicative of what would happen in 2018,” said Mark Rountree, a local pollster for the Republican-leaning firm Landmark Communications. “This race is not the norm.”
On the other hand, bragging rights are no small factor. The sheer amount of money and national attention the race has attracted is one of the reasons why both sides want to win so badly.
“The Democrats have bet the house, the car, the farm and a couple of their kids on winning this election,” said Rusty Paul, the Republican mayor of Sandy Springs and a former state party chairman. “If you can blunt them, you’ve dealt them a huge psychological blow, particularly when it comes to fundraising.”
Beyond sending a message to Republicans ahead of 2018, the stakes are a little more psychological for Democrats when it comes to Tuesday’s runoff.
Ossoff was able to harness the left’s anti-Trump energy thanks to Democrats who began organizing in person and on social media — many of them for the first time. Those nascent groups, which sprouted in some of the most conservative parts of the district, supplied a stream of volunteers who made thousands of phone calls or trekked from house to house searching for votes.
One of those new political activists is Luisa Wakeman, a 50-year-old flight attendant from Marietta who had never before been politically active but now spends almost every free day when she’s not in the air going door to door for Ossoff.
“I just wanted to do whatever it took to turn things around. I felt it was so important to take a stand, and (Ossoff) makes it easy because he’s a really great candidate,” Wakeman said. “Whatever I can do right now, I don’t want to regret it on June 21.”
What many Democrats are waiting to see is whether that grass-roots enthusiasm can be replicated in other traditionally right-leaning suburban districts. Being able to do that, as well as turn out voters who traditionally don’t vote in midterm elections, will be crucial for the party’s mission to wrest control of the House.
“If Democrats can change the makeup of the electorate in dozens of races in November 2018, that would have a big impact,” said Nathan Gonzales, the editor of the election analysis company Inside Elections.
Unclear is whether Ossoff’s traction in the 6th could also spur other political newcomers to run as Democrats elsewhere in Georgia and across the country. There are already signs that it has.
Several Democrats are eyeing the increasingly diverse Gwinnett County-based 7th Congressional District, where GOP incumbent Rob Woodall has not faced serious opposition since he was first elected in 2010. One of those challengers is David Kim, a Harvard-educated Asian-American businessman who winked at Ossoff when announcing his candidacy earlier this month.
“I want to be a voice that’s independent minded — thinking about what’s best for the long term for all of us,” he said in a note to supporters.
Walking the line
Republican leaders say they’re confident about Handel’s chances, but they caution that an upset defeat isn’t a sign of electoral doom in 2018. Asked whether an Ossoff win means that a Democrat with a centrist-sounding message could compete in Georgia, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was dismissive.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” said Cagle, the presumptive GOP front-runner in next year’s race for governor. “I think you have to connect with people and give them a clear understanding of not just who you are, but what you want to do. It’s less about political ideology and more about deliverables.”
Democrats have tried to walk this sort of line before in Georgia, vouching for moderate-sounding proposals while trying to keep a base of left-leaning supporters energized. It hasn’t worked. Few know that as well as Jason Carter, the party’s 2014 candidate for governor who voted for a gun rights expansion and centered his campaign on a pledge to boost k-12 funding.
Those races were before Trump. Carter said the “swirling political chaos” that Trump’s election summoned forth gives the right type of candidate an opening. And Ossoff, he said, has “matched the moment.”
“When you say both parties are complicit,” Carter said, echoing one of Ossoff’s lines, “you’re acknowledging that people feel alientated by the system on both sides. And it’s clear that moderate Republicans are willing to listen.”
John Wingler is not a moderate Republican.
A firm believer in Trump’s pledge to drain the swamp, and an even bigger opponent of the Affordable Care Act that the president has pledged to repeal, the Roswell accountant is the type of GOP voter that Handel needs to attract in droves to win Tuesday.
He’s more or less ambivalent about Handel, he said, but this week’s vote is bigger than her.
“To me, this race is more about who is going to control Congress. Do you want Republicans or Democrats?” said Wingler, 61. “That’s all that matters.”
Many Ossoff supporters say they’re drawn to him for the exact opposite reason.
“He’s saying exactly what needs to be said about nonpartisanship,” said Annie Cook, a Marietta actress and musician. “He’s not partisan, and that’s what’s so refreshing. It doesn’t really concern me that he’s not talking about Trump. It matters that he’s trying to move our country forward.”
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