GOP hopefuls crowd Georgia special race

GOP hopefuls crowd Georgia special race
© Dustin Chambers

Republicans in the high-profile contest to fill an open House seat in Georgia are launching attacks at their main Democratic rival — and each other.

The special election to fill the suburban Atlanta seat left open by new Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is one of the first competitive races since President Trump assumed office. 

Democrats, facing a president with historic levels of unpopularity and looking to warn congressional Republicans about the costs of working with Trump, want to frame the contest as a referendum on Trump.

Eighteen candidates are vying for the seat — 11 Republicans, five Democrats and two independents — with significantly more competition on the GOP side. The fractured Republican field gives leading Democrat Jon Ossoff a chance to win the April 18 jungle primary outright with the majority. But if Ossoff falls below 50 percent, he’ll have to face the other leading candidate in a one-on-one runoff in a historically red district.

Republicans like those odds.

“In a runoff, the Republican takes it very soundly,” veteran Georgia Republican strategist Seth Weathers, who believes a runoff is all but guaranteed, told The Hill.

“Maybe not as well of a margin as Price in the past, but it will be a decent margin,” Weathers said.

The district has remained in Republican hands since 1979, when future House Speaker Newt Gingrich won it. Price regularly won the seat with over 60 percent of the vote, and Democrats sometimes didn’t field a general election candidate.

Much of the buzz around the race has focused on the clash between Ossoff and the GOP. But with just weeks to go, the GOP candidates are starting to turn up the heat on their fellow competitors.

Karen Handel, Georgia’s former secretary of State, is thought to have a slight edge among her GOP rivals. With the highest name recognition on the Republican side, thanks to her high-profile resignation from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation over Planned Parenthood funding and statewide bids for office, Handel has the backing of former Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissLobbying World Former GOP senator: Let Dems engage on healthcare bill OPINION: Left-wing politics will be the demise of the Democratic Party MORE and has polled ahead of the other GOP candidates in most recent surveys.

Handel’s campaign initially focused its attacks on Ossoff, releasing a digital ad dubbing him the “Lightweight Liberal.” But last week, Handel turned her attacks on former state Sen. Dan Moody and former Johns Creek City Councilman Bob Gray with a new ad that jabs at two recent spots by the two men, both Republicans.

Moody had already been on the offensive, launching an ad in March that makes a thinly veiled attack on Handel by depicting an elephant wearing a pearl necklace — a staple of Handel’s wardrobe — as the narrator talked about needing to move on from “another career politician.”

And last week, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) starred in an ad in which he backed Moody and echoed the line about breaking up with career politicians.

Gray has launched some intraparty attacks of his own. His campaign released a misleading statement on April Fool’s Day claiming that Handel had dropped out and endorsed Gray. He then doubled down on the false statement, which he tweeted out to his followers, with audio from a robocall Handel made on Gray’s behalf in a previous city council race.

Gray has also sparred with Bruce LeVell, a former minority outreach leader on the Trump campaign, after LeVell and others charged that Gray overstated his personal support for Trump. LeVell, who is polling far behind other candidates, is backed by diehard Trump supporters such as former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Trump surrogate Pastor Mark Burns.

Gingrich’s favorite, former state Sen. Judson Hill, is also considered competitive.

Outside groups have shifted into high gear as the election draws near.

Last week, the conservative Club for Growth’s affiliated super PAC launched a six-figure ad buy attacking Handel as a “big-spending career politician.” The ads are intended to boost the Club’s preferred candidate, Gray.

And in what could be a response to those attacks, Ending Spending Action Fund, a group backed by GOP mega-donor Joe Ricketts, dropped six figures Wednesday, according to Politico, on its own ad buy that calls Handel the “one proven conservative in the race.”

A Wednesday poll by Atlanta’s NBC affiliate found Ossoff has a strong 43 percent support with likely voters — ahead of the other candidates, but not by enough yet to avert a runoff. Handel followed with 15 percent, Gray with 14 percent, Moody with 7 percent and Hill with 5 percent.

Republican operatives have also poured resources into the state, ignoring specific GOP candidates in the hopes of keeping Ossoff’s vote total short of a majority.

Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with the House GOP’s leadership, devoted more than $2 million to advertising and field staff. And the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and the Republican National Committee have deployed staff, too, with the NRCC releasing its first ad last week.

All those ads are aimed at hurting Ossoff’s vote, rather than boosting a specific Republican.

Ryan Mahoney, the Georgia GOP’s spokesman, told The Hill last week that the party is confident about its chances in a runoff, adding that the party will be ready to help voters coalesce around whichever GOP candidate advances past the primary.

If Ossoff can’t win outright, the Democrat is still expected to easily make the runoff. So the Republican effort will have to play an important role if it goes to a runoff, both helping to unify fractured GOP voters and organize logistics after a resource-draining primary.

“They are going to be broke, so we need to step in to make sure we have the resources and grassroots volunteers to keep them moving [with] fundraising and trying to win the runoff,” Mahoney said.

But while Republicans are confident about making the runoff, it’s not guaranteed. Polls have shown Ossoff receiving between 40 percent and 45 percent of the vote — nearly an outright win.

Trump, who hasn’t announced plans to boost Republicans in the race, is a wild card.

Ossoff came out of the gate blasting Trump, who won the district by a little more than 1 percentage point, though earlier GOP presidential candidates carried it by double digits.

With so many variables in play, there’s only so much that experts can predict.

“Republicans do a much better job of getting their people back out [to the polls],” said Charles Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

“[But] there may be an additional challenge to that this year, in that Democrats across the nation and in that district are very excited about the possibility to send Trump a message and defeat him for the first time after he’s been inaugurated.”