Dems look for Trump rebuke in Georgia special election

President Trump and the left-wing resistance to his White House will clash Tuesday in a Georgia special election with huge implications for the GOP agenda in Congress.

A dream scenario for liberals would be a knockout blow in which Democrat Jon Ossoff clears 50 percent in Tuesday’s primary battle with 17 other candidates — including 11 Republicans — to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in the seat and win a district Republicans have held for decades.

That would be a huge boost for Democrats and a blow to Trump and House Republicans, who have already seen some negative signs that could foreshadow next year’s midterm elections. 

It’s more likely that Ossoff, 30, will fall short of the 50 percent threshold, meaning that he’ll face a Republican candidate in a June runoff to determine a winner. That’s the scenario the GOP is hoping for, as Republicans think they can defeat the Democrat in a head-to-head race that would allow them to coalesce behind a single nominee.

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“This race is seen as a referendum on two things: One, on how well the Trump presidency is doing and if there are any Republicans upset enough to want to send a message. And two, a referendum on whether the Democratic Party can actually flip some districts,” said Richard Barke, a political science professor at Georgia Tech who lives in the district.

“It looks like it’s in play, but the question will be all about who turns out.”

Tuesday’s election is the culmination of months of work and millions of dollars pegged to determining whose voters turn out.

Democrats see the district as ripe for the taking. While the Republicans have had a vise-like grip on the seat for decades, Trump won the district by less than 2 percentage points in November. Last week’s surprising showing in a Kansas special election, which the Democratic candidate lost but by closer margins than Trump won the district in November, has upped the stakes for a Democratic win.

News coverage from early January and February, long before the race became nationalized, treated Ossoff’s chances at even making the runoff as far from a sure thing.

So Democrats have poured money and resources into the suburban Atlanta district, looking to send a message to Republicans and energize disheartened Democrats.

“The fact that a Democrat in a red district like this will make it into the runoff and likely be the leading vote-getter tells you about the intensity of the energy behind Democrats and progressives,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) staffer.

“The same thing that’s fueling 200 protests around the country on Saturday is fueling progressive energy around the Atlanta suburbs,” Ferguson added, alluding to weekend protests calling for Trump to release his tax returns. 

Ossoff raised $8.3 million from January through March, an eye-popping haul for a congressional candidate, with the vast majority from donors outside the state. That fact has allowed Ossoff to dwarf his rivals in spending but opened him up to attacks that he’s being propped up by out-of-state interests. 

The DCCC dispatched eight staffers to Georgia to build out what’s become a field team of more than 70 paid staffers. The House Democrats’ campaign wing has also made a handful of six-figure ad and mail buys looking to drum up turnout and push Ossoff to an outright victory in the primary. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez also recorded a robocall. 

Progressive Democrats have backed Ossoff, too. The Progressive Campaign Committee and liberal blog Daily Kos helped to bundle money and rally support, while Democracy for America endorsed him.

Republicans have countered with their own heavy investment in the race. Both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Republican National Committee have gone on the air with ads and deployed staff to the district, hoping to beat back any potential surge from Ossoff.

Barke, the Georgia Tech professor, has seen his home in the district blanketed with robocalls, television ads and pieces of direct mail, each piece proof of the outsized attention and spending in what has previously been considered a reliably red district.

Overall television spending has already surpassed $16 million, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, as outside groups are also flocking to the country’s most-watched congressional race. 

Experts and even Democratic strategists increasingly admit that Ossoff is likely headed for a runoff with one of his GOP rivals.

No public polling has shown Ossoff over 50 percent, although special election electorates are notoriously difficult to poll. 

Republicans hope to turn Democrats’ focus on the race into disappointment if Ossoff fails to reach a majority in the primary. Pointing to comments by the Ossoff campaign calling an outright victory the campaign’s goal, many in the GOP are eagerly anticipating a runoff. 

“The only number that Ossoff can hit tomorrow that would change my opinion of things is if he can hit 50 percent plus one. Even if he came out of the race with 48 percent of the vote, he still will lose [in the runoff],” said Georgia-based GOP strategist Seth Weathers.

While Democrats have a simple message to tell their base — get out and vote for Ossoff — the choices are more muddied on the right. Outside groups and candidates on the GOP side are fighting a multifront war against each other, while also looking to dampen Democratic turnout and keep Ossoff from winning a majority in the primary.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to House leadership, hammered Ossoff with more than $2 millions in ad buys and field work. 

But warring outside groups have drawn friendly fire. The Club for Growth, which endorsed Bob Gray, has blasted former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel on the airwaves, while the Trump-aligned 45 Committee fired back in Handel’s defense.

Republicans are confident that the bad blood won’t carry into the primary and hinder party unity in a runoff. 

“There’s always talk about that every primary, especially one that’s this heated,” Weathers said. 

“The reality of that is: You have two months for people to get over it. Maybe some of the core people in the volunteer base won’t be able to come out, but besides that, I think everybody will [back the Republican]."

But Democrats hope that a victory, either Tuesday or in the runoff, will send a chill down the spines of Republicans with implications on politics and policy. 

“The shift in the six months since Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump Right way and wrong way Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy MORE’s election will not be a shift to Donald Trump being presidential ... it will be a shift of Republican members of Congress becoming less afraid of Donald Trump’s tweets and more afraid of their own votes,” Ferguson said.

“You’re seeing races closer than they were six months ago — if I were a Republican member of Congress in a traditional swing state or a traditional, somewhat safe seat, I would not be sleeping well.”