How much has Jon Ossoff unsettled Republicans who want to keep a grip on suburban Atlanta’s Sixth District?
The 30-year-old Democrat was invoked throughout a GOP candidate forum as a sort of sword of Damocles hanging over the race for the seat held by Republicans since Jimmy Carter was president.
Many of the candidates at the Fulton County GOP breakfast talked of Ossoff as if he had already locked in a spot in the June 20 runoff to succeed former Rep. Tom Price. So did several veteran activists who said in speeches and hushed asides they were worried he could win.
“There are five of them, but they’re only supporting one candidate,” said Mike Fitzgerald, the district’s GOP chair. “If we have 65 percent of the GOP vote and spread it out over 11 candidates, do the math. The question is are we going to resist these outsiders taking over our district?”
(At this point, someone in the crowd yelled: “The war is on!”)
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Although Price and other Republicans routinely swept to overwhelming victories in the district, which spans from east Cobb to north DeKalb, Trump carried it by a skinny one-point margin.
And Ossoff has energized Democrats hoping to “make Trump furious” in the most competitive race in the nation since the Republican became president. His campaign said he’s raised roughly $3 million, and national Democratic groups are pouring money and staff into the race.
House GOP leaders have countered with a series of ads featuring footage of Ossoff in Star Wars outfits and playing a robust game of rock-paper-scissors. And on Monday, former Johns Creek city councilman launched a digital attack claiming Ossoff is an "embarrassment" and mocking his former boss, Rep. Hank Johnson.
With 18 candidates in the April 18 race – five Democrats, 11 Republicans and 2 independents – the race is wildly unpredictable. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, square off in a June 20 runoff. And most of the candidates focused their fire on him rather than each other.
“We need to fight fire with fire, and find someone who can stand up to Jon Ossoff,” said David Abroms, a businessman and first- time candidate.
“The only candidate Ossoff is scared of is me. I’m the one who is reaching out to his voters,” said Mohammad Ali Bhuiyan, a Cobb economist in the race.
“I don’t have a lot of money or experience, but I have a lot of heart. If you take that money thing out of it, who would you put up next to Jon Ossoff to show that contrast?” said Keith Grawert, a former Air Force pilot.
“Democrats are energized. They’re coming for us. And with Judson Hill you know what you’re getting,” said the former state senator.
“I am going to challenge Jon Ossoff. I’m not going to be scared. We have to be bold about what we stand for. Now is the time for fighting,” said Amy Kremer, a tea party activist and cable news commentator.
Former Secretary of State Karen Handel, the presumptive frontrunner, was one of the few who never uttered Ossoff’s name during her stump speech.
She’s hoping her huge name recognition – she’s put up big numbers in the Sixth during her three runs for statewide office – and record of public service resonates in the establishment-friendly district.
“I have the experience and I have the track record in the toughest environment to deliver real results for you,” she told the crowd. “I’m asking for your vote, but I’m going to work extremely hard to earn it.”
In quiet conversations after the meeting ended, there was much hand-wringing about Ossoff: His celebrity endorsements, his national attention and his foot soldiers knocking on doors and drumming up support.
And even as the GOP candidates traveled Saturday to Johns Creek and east Cobb for meetings with party activists, Ossoff trekked to Republican bastions of the district. He was canvassing in Roswell and Marietta and addressing a Dunwoody synagogue.
Greg Williams, a local GOP activist who helped organize the breakfast, brought up JaNice Van Ness as soon as he was asked about Ossoff. She’s a Republican who won an upset victory in a 2015 special election for a heavily-Democratic south Atlanta state Senate district. Though she was defeated by a Democrat in November, her brief tenure left a lasting impression on Georgia's political class.
“We are not going to be caught in a JaNice Van Ness moment,” said Williams. “We are not going to be caught sleeping. We are not going to have a repeat where they sneak in and steal a seat.”