ATLANTA – Republicans are fighting to keep former Congressman Tom Price’s seat in what some see as an early glimpse of the nation’s mood going into the 2018 midterm elections.
President Donald Trump tapped the Georgia congressman to be his secretary of Health and Human Services, creating a void in a traditionally red district nestled in the north Atlanta suburbs and setting up the first electoral test of his nascent presidency.
A surprising lead contender has emerged to replace Price: the Democrat Jon Ossoff, who launched his campaign with an enticement to “Make Trump Furious.”
The 30-year-old documentary filmmaker and former staffer of Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson is leading in the polls. He reported this week that he has raised a jaw-dropping $8.3 million, mostly from individual donors outside of Georgia.
A special election typically draws a low voter turnout, which has left Democrats optimistic of their chances of an upset in the same district that elected Newt Gingrich decades ago but showed only lukewarm enthusiasm for Trump in November.
Michael Owens, who chairs the Cobb County Democratic Party, said Democrats are also hoping to capitalize on what he called an “awakening of people getting involved in the civic and electoral process.”
“In the sixth, it never stopped,” said Owens, who is leading a three-county effort to boost Democratic turnout at the polls this month.
“Literally, we went from the election to the unfortunate results of the election and then almost immediately to another opportunity to finish the job that we couldn’t complete in November,” he added.
But his counterpart on the Republican side says Democrats aren’t the only ones who are energized.
Cobb County, which is part of the 6th Congressional District, flipped last year when voters picked Democrat Hillary Clinton. It was the first time the county had gone for a Democrat since 1976 when a Georgia peanut farmer — Jimmy Carter — was elected president.
“November was a good wake-up call,” said Jason Shepherd, who chairs the Cobb County Republican Party. Shepherd recently won the local post by campaigning to “Make Cobb Red Again.”
The national attention, he said, has kept local Republicans from becoming complacent again.
“We realize that democrats winning even a special election is a long shot, but we’re taking the race extremely seriously,” Shepherd said.
Trump ended up winning in the 6th Congressional District, which is affluent and mostly white, but he did so by only 1.5 percentage points.
Trey Hood, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, cautioned against reading much into Trump’s performance last year.
“I think that may have been more Trump than shifting partisan tides within the district,” he said.
Hood said he believes there were likely conservatives who couldn’t bring themselves to support Trump but who voted Republican down ballot. He pointed to Price’s easy ride to another term with 62 percent of the vote.
Kenneth Ellinger, a political science professor at Dalton State College, said it’s possible that some Republican voters have “buyer’s remorse” over Trump and may not be inclined “to send another perceived lackey to Washington to do his bidding.”
To those voters, a Republican with strong name recognition – such as former Secretary of State Karen Handel – who campaigns on not being “a rubberstamp for Trump” might hold some appeal, he said.
Ellinger said it is likely Republicans will keep the seat once supporters rally behind a single candidate. There are 18 candidates in the race right now, including 11 Republicans.
The support on the right appears to be split among a handful of Republican candidates, including Handel, former Johns Creek city councilman Bob Gray and former state senator Dan Moody.
A poll released Wednesday, paid for by Atlanta-based 11Alive News and conducted by SurveyUSA, showed Handel and Gray with 15 percent and 14 percent of voter support, respectively. About 7 percent of participants said they support Moody.
Ossoff led in that poll with 43 percent support. A candidate would need to snag 50 percent of the vote in the April 18 election to avoid a runoff
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.