Georgia candidates turn to local stars in campaign's closing days

 Georgia candidates turn to local stars in campaign's closing days
© Karen Handel, Getty Images

SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. — Both nominees in the hotly contested Georgia special election had several political heavyweights join them on the campaign trail to rally hundreds of supporters and volunteers in the final weekend push. 

Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff spent their Saturdays campaigning alongside prominent national figures who are also stars in Georgia state politics. Handel and Ossoff square off on Tuesday to fill the seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, in what has become the most expensive House race in U.S. history.

Starting off Saturday morning, Handel stumped with two of President Trump’s Cabinet secretaries: Price and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor. This was Price’s first time out on the trail for Handel in his old district, which he has always won with more than 60 percent of the vote. But in 2016, Trump carried the GOP stronghold by less than two points.

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Trump himself hasn’t come back to Georgia since he raised $750,000 for Handel at an Atlanta fundraiser in April. But Vice President Pence was recently in the district to help Handel.

At the rally Saturday, Price and Perdue noted the political implications of this election, especially as both parties look to the 2018 midterms and the big prize: winning the House majority. Perdue used a familiar GOP line of attack against Ossoff, arguing that he’ll be a rubber stamp on House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) agenda.

“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 at a rally held in an airport hangar at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport. Handel served as Georgia secretary of State under Perdue from 2007 to 2010.

“Don’t be fooled by someone who doesn’t have a record. Let me tell you something: He’s a puppeteer, and the strings are being pulled by Democrats and the Nancy Pelosi.”

Despite appearing with two Trump administration officials, Handel never mentioned the president by name during the event. And Price, who’s been tasked with helping the White House in its effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare, barely touched upon the issue of healthcare or touted the legislation.

“We want lower taxes. We all want a government that respects you. You all want patient-centered health care,” Price said, also noting national security as a priority. “If you want any one of those items, then who you want is Karen Handel for the 6th District.”

The GOP’s plan — the American Health Care Act (AHCA) — narrowly passed the House, and the controversial legislation is now being discussed in the Senate. Polls reflect the bill’s unpopularity nationally, but Handel has said she would have voted for it if she were in Congress.

In a different part of the suburban Atlanta district on Saturday afternoon, Ossoff was joined by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who has endorsed his campaign and stumped for him earlier this month. Ossoff previously interned for Lewis in his Washington office and has also worked for Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.).

The pair of Georgia Democrats stopped by the NAACP's Juneteenth Celebration, meeting and taking pictures with hordes of excited supporters on a hot and humid Saturday afternoon. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. and marks the day slaves in Texas were told about the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lewis, a key civil rights leader in the 1960s, was treated like a celebrity at the annual festival, and when he took the stage to say why he’s supporting Ossoff, the crowd moved toward the front of the stage and frequently applauded throughout his two-minute speech.

"[Voting] is the most powerful nonviolent instrument or tool that we have, and we must use it,” Lewis said. “So all of us, let's get out and vote on Tuesday like we've never voted before."

Ossoff, a political newcomer and investigative filmmaker, was almost as recognized at the Saturday festival, with supporters energetically looking to shake his hand and take selfies with him and his fiancee Alicia, who frequently campaigns with him.

That wasn’t Ossoff’s only event of the day to help generate voter turnout, particularly among black voters who will be key if he wants to pull off a victory on Tuesday. He held a get-out-the-vote cookout attended by volunteers and supporters as well as his father and mother.

These turnout efforts come fresh off of early voting, which ended on Friday and highlighted the intense interest in the special election. More than 140,000 people reportedly participated in early voting — that’s twice the amount of people who voted early in the April primary.

The eye-popping early vote totals are also three-quarters of the total number of people who voted — early and on Election Day — in that primary. Politico reported that Tuesday’s vote totals could likely surpass turnout in the 2014 midterm election.

Ossoff capped off his day with a pep rally at his Sandy Springs field office, thanking and encouraging volunteers and staffers to keep up their momentum. Throughout the day, he emphasized that it’s a race the entire country and the world is closely watching and the campaign’s hard work to mobilize voters makes them “poised to win this thing on Tuesday.”

“There are folks in the 6th district, across the state, across the country, who have lost some faith that politics can deliver solutions, that politics can deliver hope,” Ossoff said. “Here in this room, right now, is the team that can help restore some of that faith.

“This is going to be an extraordinarily close election and it’s going to be a late night on Tuesday. Every vote will count.”