Can Dems win Trump Cabinet pick's seat?

Can Dems win Trump Cabinet pick's seat?
© Greg Nash

Democrats are betting big that voter pushback against President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally MORE’s young administration can help them turn a Georgia special election into a House seat pickup.

The suburban Atlanta seat left open by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has received a groundswell of interest from both parties. The historically red district that Trump carried by only 1 point looks set to gather national attention as a well-funded contest before the 2018 midterms.

While Democrats failed to win Georgia in 2016, the party now feels emboldened to mobilize the energy from anti-Trump protests and make a play for a reach district by coalescing behind former congressional aide Jon Ossoff as the party’s candidate.

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“With all of the talk of division within the Democratic Party, I think this campaign is proving that there’s unprecedented unity,” Ossoff told The Hill. “There’s support from the party, there’s tremendous support from grassroots all pulling in the same direction, and that is motivating, encouraging and exciting.”

Ossoff, a 30-year-old investigative filmmaker and former aide to Democratic Georgia Reps. John Lewis and Hank Johnson, jumped in with virtually no name recognition. Still, he’s seen a surge in momentum, with millions of dollars flooding to boost his campaign and heightened interest nationally.

Four other Democrats have qualified for the race, but the party has rallied around one candidate to get a better shot at making a likely runoff. The field of 18 total candidates — regardless of party affiliation — will square off in a “jungle primary” on April 18. If no one reaches a majority, as seems likely in the crowded field, the top two vote-getters head to runoff on June 20.

Still, Democrats acknowledge that Ossoff could face trouble even making the runoff. Price consistently won reelection by at least 60 percent of the vote, and his seat was previously held by GOP heavyweights former Speaker Newt Gingrich and now-Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonSenators revive effort to create McCain human rights commission Senators revive effort to create McCain human rights commission Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump MORE.

The seat has shifted nationally over the past four years, giving Democrats hope for a surprisingly strong showing. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the district by 24 points. But Trump clinched it by only 1 point, despite Price’s overwhelming victory.

Given Trump’s narrow win in the district and low approval ratings nationwide, Democrats are looking to harness the energy and activism from demonstrations against Trump and his policies as they set their eyes on an early House target before the 2018 midterms officially gear up.

Ossoff’s campaign claims to have $2 million in contributions since jumping into the race. The readers of liberal blog Daily Kos have raised more than $1 million, while the End Citizens United group announced that it has received $150,000 in donations for him. He’s also earned the endorsements from other progressive groups and Lewis, a civil rights icon who publicly clashed with Trump ahead of the inauguration.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will put nine of its staffers on the ground in support of Ossoff. A DCCC source noted that “we are fully aware how difficult this is for any Democrat” but that the party has “cautious optimism” going into the April primary.

New Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said the party will shift its focus to Georgia, following a Delaware special election victory that kept Democrats in control of that state’s senate. Perez voiced optimism about future victories for Democrats if the party can convert energy from anti-Trump protests into unified action in local races.

“[Ossoff] must utilize this early money strategically to define himself, and then have enough in the end to be able to keep the momentum that he’s built,” said Tharon Johnson, a veteran Georgia Democratic strategist. “He’s got to raise at least another million or two.”

“He’s got to run a perfect campaign, and I think that right now from what I’m seeing from him I think he’s on track to basically be a good contender to be in the runoff.”

Some Democrats have dropped out or passed on the race in the face of Ossoff’s vast support, but former state Sen. Ron Slotin has said he won’t step aside, which could siphon votes away from Ossoff.

Republicans, meanwhile, have a wide-open field of 11 candidates but no clear front-runner.

A National Republican Congressional Committee official said the committee is currently staying on the sidelines, though they “are monitoring the race closely.” Republicans say they are confident heading into the primary and have labeled Ossoff as a carpetbagger — although he grew up in the district, he now lives just outside of it. The GOP has also looked to tie Ossoff to liberal stalwart Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Five takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Sanders tears into Trump in response to campaign kickoff rally MORE (I-Vt.).

While the NRCC currently has no plans to invest in the race, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, has launched a $1.1 million ad campaign airing until the primary. The ad, which relies on footage of Ossoff from his days as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, knocks him for dressing up as “Star Wars” character Han Solo at a college party and portrays him as a “dishonest 30-year-old frat boy ... who is now pretending to be a grown-up.”

Georgia strategists pointed to former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, former state Sen. Dan Moody and former state Sen. Judson Hill as the initial GOP front-runners. 

Of the three, Handel comes in with the highest name recognition. Serving as secretary of State from 2007 to 2010, she unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2010 and Senate in 2014. And she grew her popularity within conservative circles for resigning as a top official with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation in 2012 after the group reversed its decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood.

Other GOP candidates are running as close allies to Trump, including Bruce LeVell, who led one of Trump’s minority outreach efforts, and former councilman Bob Gray. Strategists described them as being in a second-tier of candidates who could still make a run for the second spot in a probable runoff.

Republican candidates are taking different approaches to how closely they want to link themselves to the White House, since Trump barely eked out a win in the suburban Atlanta district. Handel and some of the other establishment candidates have largely veered away from mentioning Trump’s name, while LeVell and Gray are closely associating themselves with the president.

“Once in Congress, I will be President Trump’s strongest ally to make that vision come true,” LeVell said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Heath Garrett, a former chief of staff to Isakson, advised GOP candidates to focus on Trump’s policies instead of his rhetoric. He noted that constituents endorse a large majority of his policies, and Garrett believes that voters in the highly educated and affluent district can differentiate between Trump’s bluster and his policy proposals, which are mostly in line with GOP orthodoxy.

“They overwhelmingly support the Trump policies that he’s come forward with in that district, even if they didn’t like his style necessarily in the last election cycle,” Garrett said.

“The best strategy for the Republicans is to embrace the Trump policies. And to be willing and able to distance themselves on the one or two issues that haven’t been historically the bread and butter of Republican campaigns without attacking President Trump or the Trump brand directly on that.”

But Republicans aren’t the only ones walking a Trump tightrope.

Democrats must also strike a balance in the traditionally conservative district: appealing to their base while simultaneously making sure that they don’t alienate any independent or GOP voters who will be critical in what’s likely to be a low-turnout election. Party strategists in the state believe Democratic candidates need to portray a more moderate message.

Ossoff hasn’t pulled punches when it comes to Trump, and he believes that many constituents in the district are on the same page about him.

“Voters in the 6th District across the political spectrum are concerned that Trump may embarrass us on the world stage, that he is dishonest, that he may lead us recklessly into war,” Ossoff said. “I share all of those concerns.”

But Johnson warned that Democrats must not repeat their mistakes from 2016, when the party largely centered its messaging around Trump instead of what they could do for voters.

“We will make a huge mistake in District 6 if we only focus on Donald Trump,” Johnson said. “We got to tell the people what Democrats will do for them in Washington and how they’ll go to be an independent voice for that district.”

Ossoff, so far, appears to be heeding that advice.

“The campaign is also focused on the pocketbook issues that really most people are more focused on: keeping metro Atlanta’s economy growing ... making sure patients have affordable healthcare choices, standing up for Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to choose.”