Eighteen candidates and $14 million worth of campaign ads later, the polls for Georgia’s special election are now closed. And as the results roll in, Democrats will get electoral evidence as to whether they can turn anti-Trump fervor into gains at the ballot box by grabbing a traditionally Republican House district that covers a slice of suburban Atlanta that President Donald Trump carried by less than two points in 2016.
Democrats channeled their hopes into Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide and documentary filmmaker who’s never run for political office before. To avoid a runoff, Ossoff will need to hit 50 percent in a very crowded field. Most polls have showed him running in the mid-40s, but a surge in turnout could push that number higher, which is why the national parties have put so much money into this one House race. Ossoff hitting 50 percent and winning outright has been seen as a long shot, and Republicans have a stronger chance of holding the seat in a runoff later this summer.
Even though Ossoff doesn’t often invoke Trump by name, much of the energy around his bid to replace HHS Secretary Tom Price stems from fury about the current administration.
“There are many in this community who are really concerned that the administration is not leading by example, is not living up to our values and may act recklessly, and I share all those concerns,” Ossoff said in an interview with POLITICO last week. “I think that a lot of the renewed civic engagement is because folks recognize that they can’t afford to be complacent, they’ve got to fight for what they believe in.”
Trump has taken notice. In the last 48 hours, Trump has tweeted about the race five times, attacking Ossoff for wanting to “protect criminals, allow illegal immigration and raise taxes.”
“Just learned that Jon @Ossoff, who is running for Congress in Georgia, doesn’t even live in the district. Republicans, get out and vote!” Trump posted late Tuesday afternoon.
Ossoff responded to Trump on Tuesday, telling Buzzfeed that he “appreciate[s] the president’s interest in the race,” but he’s “misinformed with respect to my priorities.”
Public polling suggests and local operatives say they believe Ossoff will advance to runoff, a one-on-one race against a likely Republican second-place finisher. But there’s still a chance Ossoff could capture 50 percent support tonight, an outright victory that would give Democrats a seat once held by Newt Gingrich.
“Since Price was nominated, Republicans have all been looking around for who they wanted to nominate, and it’ll be really embarrassing to wake up on April 19 and realize we should’ve been worrying about Ossoff that whole time,” said Jim Kingston, a Republican activist and son of former Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston.
The 11-candidate Republican field hasn’t yielded a clear front-runner, splintered among several top contenders who’ve received backing from various national outside groups, like the conservative Club for Growth and Ending Spending, a group founded by the megadonor Ricketts family.
Republicans felt even more rattled after they watched their colleagues in Kansas survive a 20-point swing toward Democrats in another special election last week. Kansas state Treasurer Ron Estes won his race by less than 7 percentage points in a district Trump carried by 27 points in November.
But unlike their counterparts in Kansas, Republicans in Georgia sounded the alarm several weeks ago, prompting $2 million in spending from the NRCC to help boost Republican turnout and counter Democrats’ energy. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with House leadership, also dumped in $3 million of its own money and dispatched on-the-ground staffers to the district.
Early vote estimates in Georgia also concerned Republicans, as Democrats initially heavily outperformed Republicans. But in the final days, GOP voters caught up some.
But in an off-year, mid-spring special election, turnout is a wild card.
Ossoff’s campaign, anchored by four field offices and with the help of 3,500 volunteers, said it has knocked on over 100,000 doors and made more than 100,000 phone calls. The DCCC also sent down nine staffers to help with get out the vote efforts.
The top four Republican candidates — former Secretary of State Karen Handel, former state Sen. Dan Moody, Johns Creek City Councilman Bob Gray and state Sen. Judson Hill — have deployed their own grassroots supporters to knock on doors. CLF, which sent its own staffers to the district, said it aimed to reach 90,000 doors by Election Day.
Still, some Republicans believe the natural conservative lean of the district will show through by Tuesday.
“By Democrats pumping in money here, they’ve awakened the sleeping giant that is the Republican base in the district,” said Jason Shepherd, chairman of the Cobb County Republican Party. “There are not enough Democrats here to win, unless the Republican base doesn’t turn out, but now the base knows that they need to turn out.”
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