Five things to watch for in Georgia's special election

ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Months of attacks and tens of millions of dollars have led up to Tuesday’s special election in Georgia, where Democrats are looking for their first major election victory of the Trump era.

President Trump’s shadow has loomed large over the race. The Democratic push to frame a victory for Jon Ossoff as proof of a growing anti-Trump wave has nationalized the race. All that attention has drawn almost $60 million of spending from both sides — a record for a House race — into the suburban Atlanta district. 

But as Democrats angle for an upset, Republicans in Georgia and across the country have fallen in line around their own candidate, Karen Handel. The GOP knows losing a red seat would be disastrous for their agenda, but they are just as aware that a Democratic loss would deal a heavy blow to the opposition’s momentum.

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Polls open in Georgia at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. Here are five things to watch as results roll in from the 6th District.

Will the huge turnout trend continue?

While special elections typically convince few voters to head to the polls, the outsized attention on the Georgia special election has led to booming turnout.

That trend only appears to be accelerating.

During April’s primary election, 194,000 voters cast their ballot, with 57,000 of those votes coming early.

More than 143,000 voters have already voted early for Tuesday’s matchup between Ossoff and Handel, a figure that means the runoff turnout will likely eclipse that of the April primary. Some observers say Tuesday’s figures could even surpass the number of people who voted in the district for the 2014 midterm election.

Strategists in the state expect Handel to do significantly better with the early vote compared to April’s primary, when she was competing against nearly a dozen Republicans.

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“What I’ve seen from our numbers, we’ve been very competitive in the early vote numbers, and he was unable to replicate what he did in the primary,” Handel told reporters after a campaign event at the Old Hickory House in Turner, Ga.

Ossoff will also need to have strong early-vote numbers, especially since Republicans historically do better with Election Day turnout.

Democrats and Republicans have both been in overdrive to encourage voters to go to the ballot box on Tuesday. But with many people on summer vacation, a lot could be riding on the record early vote.

Will GOP strongholds and white women save Handel?

The old mantras about elections hinging on base turnout are well worn, yet that doesn’t make them less true. Each candidate will be anxiously watching to see if their key constituencies show up to the polls.

Handel’s strength comes from the part of the district that stretches into northern Fulton County. That’s both the district’s Republican stronghold and where almost half the district’s voters reside.

Fulton County is Handel’s home turf — she began her political career on the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. But she split the vote there in April with two other GOP candidates from the area.

One of those candidates, Bob Gray, has been campaigning on Handel’s behalf to make sure his supporters, largely from northern and eastern Fulton, come back to the polls Tuesday to vote for Handel.

Handel’s victory plan also hinges on support from white women. Democrats are hoping that the low grades among women for both Trump and the House GOP’s ObamaCare repeal plan could sway these voters into their camp.

Can Ossoff flip Republican moderates and turn out black voters?

While Ossoff won easily in April’s first round of voting with 17 other candidates, more voters backed a Republican than a Democrat. So with turnout already looking high, experts believe Ossoff needs to increase his margin by about 6,000 or more votes to be in good shape.

That’s why he’s tacked carefully toward the center, running a far more moderate campaign than when he began his bid by offering voters a chance to “make Trump furious.”

His toned-down message was clear during the candidates’ only prime-time debate earlier this month, when Ossoff passed on a chance to criticize Trump’s travel ban and criticized former President Obama’s handling of the “red line” in Syria when asked about a disagreement with his party’s most recent president.

Ossoff also has to turn out black voters, whose enthusiasm flagged in 2016 after being a reliable voting bloc during Obama’s two elections. The Democratic hopeful went to several events on Saturday with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon, to celebrate Juneteenth, which commemorates the abolition of slavery.

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“[Voting] is the most powerful, nonviolent instrument or tool that we have and we must use it,” Lewis told supporters at the NAACP’s annual Juneteenth Festival on Saturday. “So all of us, let’s get out and vote on Tuesday like we’ve never voted before.”

Can Democrats keep outperforming Clinton?

While Democrats have failed to flip any Republican seats in special elections this year, they have seen one promising trend — candidates keep outperforming Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Manafort sought to hurt Clinton 2016 campaign efforts in key states: NYT MORE’s 2016 margins.

Democratic special election candidates in deep-red districts in Kansas and Montana still lost, but they came within single-digit margins of their opponents. Both showings were improvements on Clinton’s own margins in the districts.

That trend has fueled Democratic hopes that Trump has ushered in a new electoral environment ripe for potential Democratic wins.

Trump beat Clinton by less than 2 percentage points in the district, a far closer margin than Mitt Romney’s 24-point victory in 2012.

Ossoff had some promising signs in the April primary. He outperformed Clinton’s numbers, but only by a small percentage. 

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If he wants to pull off a victory in a traditionally red seat, he’ll need to drive up those numbers. That’s especially true in DeKalb County, the friendliest part of the district for Democrats.

What does the vote mean for Trump’s agenda?

The record-setting spending, the furious jockeying between national parties and the occasional cameos from Hollywood celebrities are all happening for one reason: Trump.

With few electoral opportunities between Trump’s election and the 2018 midterms, the suburban Atlanta congressional seat has become the closest thing to a referendum on Trump’s agenda.

Democrats want to frame their excitement and fundraising as a result of anti-Trump frustration, so a win for them will be seen as a victory over Trump.

If Ossoff wins, look for Democrats to seize on that message as a warning shot for 2018. An Ossoff victory could dampen the spirits of GOP donors, convince more politicians to break from their president and trigger retirements by Republican lawmakers fearing a tough reelection fight.

Trump and his party are keenly aware of those implications, which is why they have dedicated so many resources to holding a district that’s stayed in the party’s hands since the Carter administration.

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The president has been an active player in the race since the April primary, tweeting in support of Handel and holding a fundraiser for her in Atlanta that raked in $750,000.

He recorded a robocall in early June, calling Ossoff a “tax-raising, pro-illegal immigration Democrat.” A day before the runoff, he wrote last-minute tweets in support of Handel.

Republicans know that a GOP victory would be seen as a repudiation of the anti-Trump narrative as well as an endorsement of the party’s agenda, which includes the so-far unpopular attempts to repeal ObamaCare.

From the GOP’s perspective, a Handel victory is just as important for its potentially demoralizing effect on Democrats. After a string of close, yet ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to win Republican seats in GOP special elections, Democrats are asking if not now, when?