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Democrats go for broke in race for Tom Price's seat

Democrats go for broke in race for Tom Price's seat
© Dustin Chambers

Democrats are looking to claim a major scalp by winning the Georgia House seat vacated by Tom Price, President Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services. 

Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old rising star in the Democratic Party, is looking to win the seat outright in the upcoming April primary to replace Price. If he succeeds, it will deliver an early win for Democrats in the first competitive race of the Trump era.

“The campaign’s goal is not to get into a runoff, though we’ll be ready to fight a runoff if necessary,” Ossoff said as he announced endorsements from a handful of state legislators. “The campaign’s goal is to win this election outright on April 18.”

With early voting starting this week, Ossoff and Democrats are in full force seeking to boost turnout in the district. Actress Alyssa Milano and actor Chris Gorham offered to drive voters to the polls. And Better Georgia, a state progressive group, has teamed up with other groups to raise money and canvass in the “Vote Your Ossoff” campaign that has caught fire online. 

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So far, Democrats have a slight advantage in early voting. According to The New York Times, as of Wednesday, 55 percent of voters have participated in a recent Democratic primary, compared to 31 percent who have voted in a Republican primary. And among voters who have requested — but not yet returned — absentee ballots, Democrats also have an early lead.

“That was a very big sign for Jon Ossoff,” said Georgia Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson. “We saw that the enthusiasm in this race right now is definitely amongst the Democrats.”

While polls show Ossoff nearing the threshold to avoid a runoff, success is far from guaranteed, given that there are 18 candidates running in the “jungle primary.” If no one candidate gets 50 percent, the top two vote getters will advance to a June 20 runoff. Ossoff is expected to at least make the runoff, where it’ll be a much steeper climb once Republicans coalesce around a nominee.

Johnson said the momentum in the race makes him more “optimistic” about the possibility of Ossoff winning outright, but said it’s “highly unlikely” the race will be decided on April 18.

Ossoff’s unexpectedly strong showing has taken Republicans by surprise in a district that handily reelected Price. A victory in the district for Democrats will likely bolster their belief that there is a backlash against Trump heading into 2018 midterm elections.

As the primary comes down to the wire and election handicappers readjust their race ratings to “toss-up,” Republicans are working to make sure Ossoff doesn’t win more than 50 percent of the vote.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is making a last-minute investment and launched its debut TV ad Friday. In addition to radio and digital ads, the NRCC will also deploy staffers to the district who will work with the Republican National Committee (RNC) staffers already there, according to an NRCC official.

Those resources come after Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, spent more than $2 million targeting Ossoff.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump would help in the special election “if needed,” but Spicer didn’t specify whether the president would campaign there or offer any other support.

Republicans are turning up the heat on Ossoff, accusing him of inflating his resume and seeking to paint him as a “30-year-old frat boy.” They have questioned his national security credentials during his time as an aide to Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). 

The attacks prompted Ossoff's campaign to release a timeline showing that he worked as a national security staffer for five years and had top-secret clearance for five months of his tenure. 

Ossoff has captured much of the attention in the race, but the 11 Republican candidates are battling each other to make one of the spots in a runoff. 

Karen Handel, former Georgia secretary of State and a leading contender, won an endorsement from former Sen. Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissJuan Williams: GOP plays the bigotry card in midterms A hard look at America after 9/11 Lobbying World MORE (R-Ga.), who held a fundraiser for Handel with GOP mega-donor Fred Cooper. Her first TV ad in the race took aim at Ossoff as Pelosi’s “handpicked candidate” and slammed him in a fundraising email over his celebrity support.

But Handel isn’t the only Republican candidate who has scored a high-profile endorsement.

Former state Sen. Dan Moody nabbed the coveted support of Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who was also featured in an ad. And former state Sen. Judson Hill has endorsements from Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioCongress raises pressure on Saudi Arabia Rubio: Khashoggi killing was ‘disrespectful to Trump’ O'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot MORE (R-Fla.) and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R), who represented the Atlanta suburban district from 1979 to 1999. 

The conservative Club for Growth’s debut in the race was a TV ad aimed at Handel, who the group described as a “big-spending career politician.” The Club endorsed Bob Gray, a former councilman who has inched higher in the polls. 

Gray has aligned himself closely with Trump and believes voters in the district want a leader with “business-minded experience” and outsider credentials. He contrasted himself with Handel, Moody and Hill, who all had political careers, and said he can’t envision a scenario where Ossoff wins the seat even with all the outsized attention.

“It’s a surprise to see how much resources are being dumped into it, I do think there’s some surprise where the poll numbers reflect he is,” Gray told The Hill. “But I don’t think anyone believes there’s any chance that he’s going to win the seat either in the special election or the runoff.” 

Bruce LeVell, who led Trump’s national diversity coalition, has challenged Gray’s support for Trump and called him a member of the #NeverTrump movement. LeVell has enlisted support from Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, and Pastor Mark Burns, a high-profile Trump surrogate, who stumped for him at a rally this week.

The Georgia Republican Party is gearing up for an expected runoff and plan to get fully behind whoever emerges as the nominee with full confidence that they’ll hold the seat. 

“Once we know who our candidate is after the 18th, we will be ready with money and resources and a grassroots army to support our nominee and push them across the finish line,” said Ryan Mahoney, Georgia GOP spokesman. 

“We’re working around the clock to make sure [Democrats] don’t get that win in Georgia. They are desperately trying to flip the script here, and it’s just not going to happen in Georgia.”

As Republicans seek to cast Ossoff as a liberal aligned with the Democratic establishment in Washington, strategists say he'll need to start immediately appealing to independents and Republicans while keeping his base and progressives in his corner.

“His general election runoff messaging must start now,” Johnson said. “He’s got to have this delicate balance between securing and holding onto that support but also having a message that appeals to moderate, disaffected Republicans.”