Political Insider

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Georgia special election is a Rorschach test for the Trump era

It’s a sultry weekend afternoon, and passing cars in a traffic-choked Brookhaven intersection are honking their support — and sometimes disdain — for the crowd of Jon Ossoff supporters waving his campaign’s bright-blue signs.

There stands Adriane Cooper, a Sandy Springs teacher wielding a “Vote Your Ossoff” placard and a chip on her shoulder from Donald Trump’s presidential win. She was drawn like a magnet to the Democratic newcomer who has put Tuesday’s special election to represent a swath of suburban Atlanta at the scorching center of the nation’s political debate.

“This is the first time I’ve been old enough to vote against the people in charge, the people I don’t agree with,” the 25-year-old said. “And this is my way to channel that energy.”

The once-sleepy special election to represent Georgia’s 6th Congressional District has become a Rorschach test for the Trump era: Some see it as an early barometer for Trump’s popularity or a test of the nascent resistance movement to the president. Others see a dry run for the 2018 midterm elections, or they dismiss it as an anomaly.



What’s not in doubt, though, is that the race has turned into a bruising proxy battle between national Republicans and Democrats. A stunning $14 million has been spent on advertising, most of it fueled by out-of-state money.

Ossoff’s dream of winning the district outright on Tuesday seems dim, although not out of the realm of possibility. And his chances of prevailing in a June 20 runoff are long as well. The district’s demographics and voting history tilt heavily in the GOP’s favor.

But the 30-year-old former congressional aide has built a formidable lead in polls. And the infighting among Republicans in the field has led national groups to pour millions of dollars into attack ads hoping to thwart Ossoff’s surprising campaign.

“Republicans fear this becoming the national news. They fear it like the plague,” said former Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, whose defeat in 2002 heralded a conservative wave in the South. “They know this would put fear in the soul of every Republican running for office.”

The 11 Republicans in the race are shooting for No. 2 in Tuesday’s vote, which would net one of them a spot in the runoff — provided Ossoff falls short of the majority needed for victory. At this stage, the GOP contenders have turned on each other as much or more than they have taken aim at Ossoff.

“If it weren’t a fractious primary, it wouldn’t be a Republican primary,” said Rusty Paul, the mayor of Sandy Springs and a longtime GOP strategist. “The real race starts April 19th.”

Trump’s struggles in the district — he won it by about 1 point — have given Ossoff’s supporters a jolt of energy. So has his unprecedented $8.3 million fundraising haul that’s fueled a flood of TV ads, radio spots and mailers. Thousands of his volunteers — and scores of paid staffers — blanket the district.

An Ossoff victory would no doubt be cast as a rebuke to Trump’s young presidency. The district, which stretches from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County, has long been among the safest of Republican seats, and its last occupant, Tom Price, won landslide after landslide until Trump made him his health secretary.

That possibility of a Democrat winning the seat has fueled a tidal wave of coverage from national media outlets wondering whether a ruby-red district can turn blue overnight. The race has also generated intense interest in Washington from leaders of both parties; Trump’s top advisers are said to be closely monitoring the vote and Nancy Pelosi, the House’s Democratic leader, has championed Ossoff’s campaign.

A victory by Ossoff, an investigative filmmaker who was until recently unknown to most Democrats even in metro Atlanta, could make him one of the highest-profile Democrats in office in Georgia, with pundits, politicians and party operatives across the country chewing over what his win would mean.

Is he but a temporary vessel for anti-Trump sentiment, a simple mascot for the wave of frustrated Democrats seeking revenge on a president they can’t stomach? Or is he on the vanguard of a more lasting political realignment, a model for how Democrats can compete in once-solidly Republican districts?

We’re about to find out.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.