Georgia House Race May Guide How Candidates Deal With Trump

Updated on
  • Democrat in special election avoids mentioning president
  • Republican seeks to keep Trump at arm’s length in GOP district

Georgia Congressional Vote Sets Stage for 2018 Elections

As voters in the northern suburbs of Atlanta go to the polls Tuesday in a special U.S. House election, Democrats and Republicans will closely watch for clues about how to deal with President Donald Trump in next year’s congressional races.

They’ll examine Democrat Jon Ossoff’s strategy to avoid mentioning Trump for fear of alienating conservative voters in a suburb that’s been in GOP control since 1979, and Republican Karen Handel’s efforts to keep the unpopular president at arm’s length.

Jon Ossoff

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The candidates -- Ossoff, 30, a former congressional aide, and Handel, 55, Georgia’s former secretary of state -- are locked in a close race to fill a seat vacated by Republican Tom Price, tapped by Trump to serve as Health and Human Services secretary. What should have been an easy contest for Republicans -- the district previously elected former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- is instead the most expensive House race in U.S. history.

Regardless of who wins, both parties will look for clues about who voted, why and whether anti-Trump sentiment has the potential to flip dozens of Republican-held seats to the Democratic column. Among the questions they’ll seek to answer, according to Democratic strategist Penny Lee: “Is the anger more national than it is local? Is it the Democratic brand that’s damaged versus the Republican brand?” she said.

What’s ‘Translatable’

“They’re just going to have to dissect it to figure out exactly what occurred, what is translatable to other elections coming up,” she said.

If Democrats win, they’ll likely portray the result as a good sign for their chances of taking control of the House, now controlled by Republicans 238-193. A victory in a traditionally red state could also encourage more Democratic candidates to step forward in Republican districts.

Karen Handel

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A Republican victory would embolden Trump and suggest that Republicans may have good prospects for holding their House lead, despite Trump’s national approval of 38 percent and disapproval of 56 percent, according to a Gallup poll taken June 16-18.

Still, much could change between now and next year’s midterm elections. The outcome of FBI and congressional investigations into possible Trump campaign ties to Russia, and whether the president obstructed justice in handling the federal probe, could influence campaigns’ strategy. Congressional action on repealing Obamacare may also sway public opinion and affect the focus of next year’s campaigns.

So far, GOP candidates have prevailed in special elections to fill House seats previously held by Republicans Trump appointed to government posts. The party maintained its hold on House seats in Kansas and Montana. There’s another contest in South Carolina Tuesday in which the Republican candidate is favored.

Ossoff, a political newcomer, almost won the race outright in a 16-candidate primary in April, which triggered Tuesday’s runoff election with Handel.

Close Polls

The latest polls in the Georgia district show the candidates within the margins of error. A WSB-TV/Landmark Communications poll on June 15 showed Ossoff with 49.7 percent and Handel with 48 percent, with a 3.5 percent margin of error.

Some Republicans argue that the result won’t carry any weight beyond the district. Mark Rountree, a Republican pollster who lives in the district, said the close race is a fluke.

“If the Ds lose, they’ll say it was a Republican district and if they win, the Republicans will say they spent $30 million to do it,” Rountree said. “It’s just so clearly an aberrant election.’’

Ossoff gained national attention and raised millions of dollars by promising to make Trump "furious." But he’s been running a centrist campaign with little mention of the president. Handel has tiptoed around Trump, making cautious statements when asked about the president.

Ossoff raised $23.6 million through May, mostly from donors in blue states, compared with $4.3 million raised by Handel, mostly from Georgia, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The candidates are flooding local TV stations with advertising.

Georgia’s Special Election Is a TV Ad Bonanza

Ossoff has campaigned as a centrist focused on reducing the deficit, cutting spending and bringing high-tech jobs to Atlanta.

Handel touts her experience in the private sector and has an agenda similar to Trump’s. She has called for the repeal of Obamacare, securing U.S. borders and overhauling the tax code. Handel has tried to toe the line between accepting the help of national Republicans like Speaker Paul Ryan, who campaigned with her, and the president, who held a fundraiser for her, and being bogged down by the president’s approval rating.

The president on Monday backed Handel in a series of tweets, saying Ossoff doesn’t live in the district and “wants to raise taxes and kill healthcare.” The Democrat is also “weak on crime and security,” Trump added in a tweet Tuesday morning.

The real test for Handel and mainstream Republicans is whether they can "turn out Trump voters without Trump on the ballot," said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. 

— With assistance by Margaret Newkirk

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