Republicans are increasingly anxious that a splintered GOP field could lead to a Democratic upset victory in one of the first congressional elections of the Trump era.
Once an unthinkable prospect in the conservative suburban Atlanta seat left vacant by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, party officials now concede that Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democrat, could steal a district that’s been in GOP hands for decades.
Mounting worries have led the GOP’s House campaign arm to set up its independent expenditure operation, part of a “battle plan” to get involved “in short order,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers of Ohio told POLITICO.
“Special elections are special, and the Democrats and some independents are excited, so we need to make sure Republicans are just as excited about voting. I feel confident that we’ll get there,” Stivers said, noting that the party’s involvement is designed to motivate turnout, not back one of the nearly dozen GOP candidates seeking the seat. “But we know that Ossoff is real.”
That acknowledgement is a reflection of the unique forces driving the April 18 special election. Ossoff is one of 18 candidates thrown together in a primary in which all the candidates — regardless of party — will appear on the same ballot. A candidate who receives more than 50 percent of the vote will win the race outright. If no candidate reaches 50 percent, there will be a runoff on June 20 between the top two vote-getters.
The threat for Republicans is that the crowded field of nearly a dozen Republican candidates will dilute the GOP vote, enabling Ossoff to hit 50 percent and win the seat — and thus avoid a runoff in which he would be hard-pressed to defeat a GOP candidate in a one-on-one matchup.
“Our job is to make sure we keep him below 50 [percent],” Stivers said. “Then we coalesce and unite our forces around one candidate in June.”
The NRCC declined to give further details on how much it plans to spend — and how it plans to spend it — to intervene in the race.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a group closely aligned with the House Republican leadership, already doubled its TV ad spending against Ossoff last Friday, dumping more than $2 million on the district.
Ossoff, who has consistently led in public polling, is minting money — he’s raised more than $4 million, an extraordinary amount for a Democrat in a Republican district like this one. He is also getting assistance from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which sent nine on-the-ground staffers to the district last month.
So far, early voting estimates suggest Democratic turnout is outpacing Republican participation.
“The anxiety level is increasing, and it’s creeping higher every day,” said Todd Rehm, a Republican consultant in the state who’s not affiliated with any of the nearly dozen GOP candidates in the primary. “This race could be a perfect storm of higher than average Democratic turnout and below average Republican turnout. The early vote totals are chilling.”
Another national Republican strategist said there are “big fears” about Ossoff’s prospects of capturing the seat, which Price first won in 2004.
Republicans have “come to terms” with the reality that Ossoff will likely finish in the top two, but “the fear is definitely out there” that Ossoff will clinch 50 percent by elevating Democratic turnout, while Republican votes will be spread too thinly across several candidates, said Jim Kingston, a Republican activist and son of former Georgia GOP Rep. Jack Kingston.
“I don’t think that’s likely to happen, but obviously in the last two years, we’ve seen a lot of crazy upsets in politics,” Kingston said. “People are definitely talking about and preparing for this possibly happening.”
Several Republican candidates are now involved in a bruising fight for the number two slot. Former Secretary of State Karen Handel, a frequent statewide candidate who most recently lost a 2014 Senate bid, leads the pack in name recognition.
Handel has emerged as an early target among her Republican opponents. In an effort to boost Bob Gray, a Johns Creek city councilman, the conservative Club for Growth is up with TV ads that dub Handel as a “big-spending politician” who can’t be “trusted with our money.”
Former state Sen. Dan Moody, a self-funder, is gaining ground in public polling after spending big on TV ads of his own. State Sen. Judson Hill, who’s been endorsed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — who once represented the area — and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, holds a geographic advantage, as much of his legislative district overlaps with the congressional lines.
Republicans are not in full panic mode yet. They point to raw numbers that show Republicans maintaining a significant voter registration advantage over Democrats, along with the conventional wisdom that Democrats outperform in early voting.
“The big field shows the incredibly deep bench that Republicans have in this district,” said Mansell McCord, treasurer of the state GOP. “It would certainly be simpler if you had only one or two candidates, but I can assure you, this district will remain Republican.”
“The good news for Ossoff is he’ll get 42 percent in the primary. The bad news is he’ll get 42 percent in the runoff,” said Dan McLagan, a GOP consultant in the state who’s working with Moody, noting that Republicans will fall in line for the June runoff.
But the district, based just north of Atlanta, is a well-educated, largely affluent area, where Trump’s populist, nationalist message did not go over well. Cobb County, a longtime suburban seat of Southern Republican power, narrowly backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, which Democrats point to as evidence that it’s trending their way.
Ossoff, who says he’ll “work with anyone to get our country on track,” is running as a check on Trump, saying in one TV ad that “when President Trump embarrasses our country or acts recklessly, I’ll hold him accountable.” But in his TV ads, he also doesn’t explicitly identify as a Democrat.
Republicans insist that once voters get wind that Ossoff is aligned with Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, they’ll reject him — a new TV ad from the Congressional Leadership Fund asserts that “Pelosi’s friends are bankrolling” Ossoff’s campaign and he will be a “rubber-stamp” for Pelosi’s “liberal agenda.”
Ossoff’s team realizes the importance of winning outright on April 18 and avoiding the June runoff.
“If we’re going into Game 6 in a best of 7 series, you wouldn’t slow-play Game 6 because you know you have Game 7,” said Keenan Pontoni, Ossoff’s campaign manager. “We want to win Game 6.”
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