The special election to replace US Rep. Tom Price (R), who is now Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Trump Administration, will be the first test of the Democrats’ ability to win over Republican voters who did not support Donald Trump last November. The open seat race has attracted 18 candidates, eleven Republicans and five Democrats. The “jungle primary,” which means all candidates, regardless of party, are listed on the same ballot, will be held on April 18; if no candidate receives a majority – highly unlikely with 18 candidates in the race, a runoff will be held June 20.
The 6th District covers the northern suburbs of Atlanta and includes parts of Fulton, Cobb and DeKalb Counties. Some two-thirds of its residents were not born in Georgia; it has almost half of the state’s Jewish population and a large Catholic component. Combined with more traditional “country club” Republicans, it is easily the most moderate of the state’s ten Republican districts; it was the only GOP district that did not vote for Trump in the primary, but was won by Marco Rubio. Although it gave an average of 64% of its votes to the GOP’s statewide candidates in 2014, Trump carried it by a very slim one percentage point last November.
The strongest Republican candidates include former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who carried the district in her close but losing race for governor in 2010 and has the most name ID. In second place is probably state Sen. Judson Hill, who has been in the Senate for 12 years and represents about one-quarter of the district. Hill has also been endorsed by Georgia Right to Life. And Johns Creek city councilman Bob Gray, a technology executive has some support.
Chuck Clay, former Republican state chairman and former state senator, says “I’d throw Dan Moody in the crowd.” Moody, a former state senator who represented part of the district, also has some money.
Clay, now an attorney with Nelson, Mullins, adds, “The Handel-Deal race [in 2010] left long-standing fissures and scars. Her last ad said, ‘Deal is the most crooked politician in Washington’ … the Deal machine will line up behind Moody or possibly Judson Hill. Moody is a low-key guy. Judson Hill is different. He made his reputation with tort reform. He’s a very good retail politician. He looks good, a heckuva nice guy.”
Another candidate of note is Bruce LeVell, a businessman who was Trump’s minority out-reach person in Georgia.
“Karen, Judson and Dan. Anyone of the three has a logical base, and can raise money,” says Clay. He adds, however, “With 18 people running, somebody could get 10% and make the runoff … it could be a shocker. It could be a 50 or 100 vote margin could make a difference.”
But all the action is not on the Republican side, by any means. Democrats, usually discouraged by their prospects in this largely white suburban district, are very much encouraged by two factors. First, last November, the GOP margin in the district suffered a big meltdown: Trump carried it 48% to 47%, compared to Mitt Romney’s 63%-37% victory here in 2012. It was Hillary Clinton’s second largest improvement over President Obama in a congressional district in the nation.
The second factor encouraging Democrats is their leading candidate. Jon Ossoff is a former staffer for US Rep. Hank Johnson (D) and has been endorsed by Johnson as well as US Rep. John Lewis (D). The youthful Ossoff, 30, looks more like a film star than a documentary film producer, his current occupation. He has an impressive academic background, graduating from Georgetown University and getting a master’s degree from the London School of Economics. He also speaks French (though few of the district’s voters do).
National liberal and Democratic groups are helping Ossoff big time. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is providing money to the Georgia Democratic Party to hire nine full-time staffers for the campaign. End Citizens United, a group that wants to reduce big money in politics, says it will mobilize some 40,000 volunteers – its membership in the Atlanta metropolitan area – to campaign for Ossoff. And The Daily Kos has signed up some 3,500 volunteers for Ossoff; moreover, it has raised nearly $1 million for him.
One challenge for Ossoff will be projecting a somewhat moderate image, while holding on to his decidedly liberal backers. He is presumed to be more liberal than most of the district’s voters.
A poll completed on Feb. 21 showed Ossoff leading with 32%, followed by Handel with 25% and Gray with 11%; 18% were undecided. The survey, conducted by zpolitics and Clout Research, has come under strong criticism; however. It listed only six candidates, all identified by party affiliation, five prominent Republicans and one Democrat, Ossoff. This had the effect of funneling all Democratic votes to Ossoff and dividing the GOP vote five ways.
Despite the major money and muscle behind Ossoff, Republicans remain confident of holding the seat. Clay says that the district’s voters are “high income, pretty savvy. It will stay Republican.” As for Ossoff, “That’s a push.” Last fall’s close result “was trending anti-Trump, not trending Democratic. Republicans will rally around a Republican to beat any Democrat.”
The safest bet may be, however, that all bets are off. Stay tuned!