Five things to watch in the Georgia special election

A highly anticipated special election in Georgia is coming down to the wire Tuesday as Democrats look to deliver a major upset and turn the House race into a referendum on President Trump.

All eyes will be on whether Democrat Jon Ossoff can win outright in the primary or whether he and one of the Republican candidates will compete in a June runoff to fill the seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Here are the five things to watch for Tuesday:

Does Ossoff win outright?

That will be the biggest question of the night and the most closely watched part of the vote.

Ossoff will face candidates of both parties Tuesday in the “jungle primary.” Polls show him hovering in the low 40s — a promising number for a Democrat in the district that Trump won by 1 percentage point, but still not close enough to the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

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Democrats hope to avert the runoff and send a clear signal to Trump and Republicans that even GOP seats in districts that went for Trump aren’t safe from midterm challenges. An early Ossoff victory would also boost Democratic spirits and fundraising, raising expectations for a wave election that hands Democrats a House majority.

Even if Ossoff doesn’t clinch a majority of the vote, he’s still expected to make the June 20 runoff. But he will have a much steeper climb winning the seat in a runoff, when the 18-candidate race will be narrowed to just Ossoff and a Republican with the national party’s backing.

Ossoff has generated excitement among Democrats, hauling in an unprecedented $8.3 million in three months. If he goes to a runoff, he’ll be challenged to keep up that momentum and record fundraising over the next two months.

Which Republican makes the runoff spot?

If Ossoff fails to win a majority, he’ll likely face one of 11 Republicans from the primary field in June.

There are several leading contenders among the crowded GOP group, but which one could win the second-place spot to make the runoff is a big question mark going into Election Day.

Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel was an early favorite, but she’s been hit with a barrage of attacks from her Republican rivals and their allies. The conservative Club for Growth targeted her as a “career politician." Fellow GOP candidate Dan Moody, a former state senator, took his own jab at Handel with an ad featuring an elephant wearing a pearl necklace — a permanent fixture in Handel’s wardrobe. 

But Handel entered the race with the highest name recognition thanks to two failed statewide campaigns and her high-profile resignation from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation over the organization’s funding for Planned Parenthood.

Polling shows three other top GOP contenders behind Handel: Moody, former state Sen. Judson Hill and former Johns Creek Councilman Bob Gray. 

Gray has aligned himself closely with Trump, despite the president's slight margin of victory there. But he’s clashed with Republican Bruce LeVell, who led Trump’s national diversity coalition and has challenged the authenticity of Gray’s support for the president. 

LeVell campaigned with Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, but he polls far behind the rest of the GOP field. 

Does Ossoff run up the vote in the right counties?

Georgia’s 6th District, which is based in Atlanta’s suburbs, spans three counties: Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton.

DeKalb County is the most Democratic of the three. Ossoff is expected to do well in DeKalb precincts like Brookhaven. But if Ossoff fails to establish a base of votes there, strategists in the state say the race will likely go to a runoff. 

That’s because Cobb and Fulton will be tougher terrain for Democrats. 

Ossoff is not expected to perform well in northern Fulton areas like Alpharetta and Johns Creek, places with strong ties to some of the leading Republicans. 

But if Ossoff performs better than expected in northern Fulton, that could be a game-changer.

“If Jon Ossoff is getting 10 to 20 percent of the vote up there, that’s a really great night for him,” said Tharon Johnson, a Georgia Democratic strategist.

In Cobb, Ossoff is expected to have a hard time all across the county. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the county overall in the 2016 presidential race but did not carry the portion that falls in the 6th District. 

Strategists say Ossoff could do well in east Cobb, an area with a large population of educated Republican women, many of whom voted for Clinton. 

“He’s got to come to as close as he can to get percentages similar to what Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonKim Kardashian West defends Kanye on Trump: 'He's a free thinker, is that not allowed?' Trump comments on Fifth Amendment resurface after Cohen filing The 'Handmaid's Tale' liberal feminists created MORE got in that district in Cobb in order to win without a runoff,” Johnson said. 

In the GOP field, Hill used to represent a portion of Cobb, so high turnout there could mean a good night for him. But with many of the leading GOP contenders likely to split the vote in Fulton, the Republican field will likely come down to which candidate can get the majority of votes in DeKalb in order to make the runoff.

With early voting split, which party will have stronger turnout at the polls?

Three weeks of early voting came to an end last Friday with more than 46,000 ballots cast, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Democrats appeared to have a substantial early-voting advantage in the beginning, but Republicans have reportedly closed the gap.

Georgia strategists and political observers say that Republicans typically have stronger turnout on Election Day as well as absentee voting, while Democrats usually have an upper-hand in early voting.

The number of voters choosing Democratic and Republican ballots is nearly even, according to a Journal Constitution tally. 

Georgia voters aren’t required to choose a party when they register. While they must select one of the party’s primary ballots, they don’t have to vote for that party’s candidate.

With both parties nearly even in early voting, Democrats and Republicans alike will need to count on strong Election Day turnouts. 

How will Trump react?

Trump has largely stayed out of the race, save a Monday tweet slamming Ossoff as “super liberal” and claiming that he supports illegal immigration and tax increases. Ossoff fired back in a statement, calling Trump “misinformed.”

It remains to be seen whether he’ll weigh in on the race after the results, but last week’s Kansas special election suggests that Trump will be watching — and might find it hard not to claim victory if Ossoff fails to avert a runoff.

Prior to the Kansas election, Trump tweeted his support for GOP nominee Ron Estes. After Estes won, performing worse than Trump had in 2016, Trump falsely tweeted that Democrats “spent heavily” in the race.