Why a race in Georgia could shape up to be a referendum on Trump's presidency

Whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, election watchers probably have Georgia on their minds. The most expensive House race in U.S. history ends with the voting Tuesday night in a special election in North Atlanta billed as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Polls have Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel in a virtual dead heat.

The outcome in Georgia’s 6th congressional district — wealthy, conservative, suburban territory that’s remained Republican red since Newt Gingrich won his House seat there in 1979 — could portend a political shift among moderate Republicans and Democrats keen to send a message to the White House.

Beyond just the Peach State, Democratic strategists are hoping a victory will signal a national trend of disaffected Republicans turned off by Trump’s leadership, his response to ongoing Russia-related investigations and his party’s new health-care bill to replace the Affordable Care Act.

Many have their eye on reclaiming a Democratic majority in the House in 2018.

Hopes for the Democrats

“Georgia is the heart of the Old South, the gateway to the southeast region,” says Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist based in Atlanta.

A Democratic victory would offer some political momentum into the mid-term elections next year because, he says, “if a Democrat can win in Georgia, and in a Republican district with a proven model, it does nothing but promote hope and optimism for Democrats to win more seats in the upcoming mid-term elections.”

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Republican candidate Karen Handel, shown campaigning in Alpharetta, Georgia, on June 19, is a former secretary of state of Georgia. (Bita Honarvar/Reuters)

Johnson was impressed with Ossoff’s fundraising prowess.

A record $ 50 million has been raised by both sides in the special election to fill the seat left vacant by former congressman Tom Price, who was tapped to serve in Trump’s cabinet as secretary of health and human services.

That Ossoff, 30, a former documentary maker and political aide, is mounting such a fierce challenge against Handel, 55, a former Georgia secretary of state, is particularly astonishing given how solidly red the area has been for decades.

Handel, a former businesswoman, supported repealing Obamacare and is in favour of building a southern border wall with Mexico.

Ossoff is running as a moderate concerned about climate change. He does not reside in the district he would be representing if he won.

A Democratic win would be “monumental,” Johnson says. “Not just for Georgia, but for Democrats and moderate Republicans across the country.”

Questionable TV spot

Meanwhile, desperation may be settling in among Republicans backing Handel. In a move that could backfire, a conservative political action committee called Principled Leadership PAC ran a TV spot using last week’s shooting of Republican congressman Steve Scalise and four others in Virginia to link Ossoff with “the violent left.”

“Now the unhinged left is endorsing and applauding shooting Republicans,” an ominous narrator says in the commercial endorsing Handel.  “When will it stop? It won’t, if Jon Ossoff wins on Tuesday.”

Handel disavowed the commercial, calling it “disgusting.”

The 6th District looked to be shaky ground for Republicans in November. Trump underperformed there on election night, eking out a win by 1.5 points. Price won his seat by 23 points last November.

Howard Franklin, founder of political consultancy Ohio River South in Atlanta, views the high-stakes race as a test for the new administration.

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Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff, a former documentary maker and political aide, has been a formidable fundraiser. (Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters)

If Ossoff succeeds, he expects Republican representatives in competitive districts elsewhere to feel more secure about “standing up to the president” with the backing of their constituents.

Trump’s scandal-plagued presidency has so far been “a monster of his making,” Franklin says. “The only way that it’s going to slow down is if congressional Republicans get in front of it and get him to pump the brakes.”

‘The one thing you can guarantee is: Whoever wins and whoever loses, someone’s going to crow about it.’- Stuart Rothenberg, elections analyst

Virginia Galloway, the regional director for the southern region of the nonpartisan, but socially conservative, Faith and Freedom Coalition, doesn’t believe any party will get much more than a “psychological boost” from Tuesday’s election result.

“Whichever side wins is going to use it to say, look, Ossoff wins, so people don’t like Trump; or if he doesn’t win, people do like Trump.”

Galloway, who lives in the heart of Georgia’s 6th District in Marietta, isn’t willing to extrapolate further on what either result could mean for the 2018 midterms.

One way or the other, the political narrative is bound to be shaped by the special congressional run-off, says elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg. He cautions about reading too much meaning from the outcome.

“I’ve been doing this long enough to know we’re still a long way away from the midterm elections.”

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U.S. President Donald Trump underperformed in the traditionally red 6th District in November, squeaking past Hillary Clinton by one percentage point. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Rothenberg notes that even after Pennsylvania Republican Tim Burns lost his special election in 2010, the Republicans still managed to take control of the House in the midterms that year.

“The one thing you can guarantee is: Whoever wins and whoever loses, someone’s going to crow about it,” he says.

“And the other side will be explaining the defeat.”

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