MARIETTA, Ga. — In the final hours before voters go to the polls in Georgia’s special election Tuesday, national attention focused on a polarizing ad that almost no one in this Atlanta-area district saw — a cable television spot that ties Democrat Jon Ossoff to the "violent left" in the wake of last week’s shooting of GOP House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
It’s a fitting conclusion to a race that’s been nationalized from the start.
Both campaigns were quick to condemn the ad this weekend, which was only backed by a small, five-figure buy and was buried amid a massive flood of other television ads. But it attracted widespread publicity in a contest that’s evolved into a referendum on the early months of the President Donald Trump.
"When will it stop? It won’t if [Democrat] Jon Ossoff wins on Tuesday," the ad’s narrator warns. "Because the same unhinged leftists cheering last week’s shootings are all backing Jon Ossoff, and if he wins, they win."
Paid for by the obscure Principled PAC, the spot featured news footage of Scalise on a stretcher, leading to an outcry and speculation about whether it might help Republican Karen Handel.
The candidates themselves, however, focused on offering closing platitudes in an effort not to offend their key voting groups.
For Handel, the final day meant a three-stop rumble through friendly territory, her last-minute play to jack up turnout in GOP strongholds. The campaign supporters who surrounded her wore stickers reminding, “REPUBLICANS who stay home elect DEMOCRATS."
Shortly after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy dropped by her first event, Handel spoke to supporters briefly here at the Cherokee Cattle Company restaurant while her canvassers combed the suburban streets.
“I know my opponent has a lot of money,” said Handel, as the National Federation of Republican Women bus lingered outside. “But my money is on you, the grassroots.”
Ossoff, in his own perfunctory remarks roughly two hours later, kicked off a canvass at his Sandy Springs field office.
“It is the home stretch, we’ve got less than thirty hours until the polls close,” he warned in the second of his four events Monday, as he raced to convince skeptical moderates to back him in the district that’s been Republican for decades. “It’s a neck and neck race, there’s nothing more effective in getting out the vote than neighbors knocking on neighbors’ doors, so thank you for being here."
Despite the national attention, for much of the campaign and on election eve, Trump himself was barely mentioned. The candidates walked a tightrope, aiming to avoid antagonizing the voters they need most.
Ossoff avoided talk of Trump during his brief remarks Monday, instead turning his focus to former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who campaigned with him Monday. Kander, who narrowly lost a Senate race in November, was one of the few national party figures that Ossoff’s team would use as surrogates given the party’s tenuous brand in the district.
Handel’s balancing act was to try to fire up the Republican base without mentioning the president’s name at all. There were few pieces of Trump paraphernalia to be seen at Handel’s second stop Monday — just one Make America Great Again hat and a handful of understated buttons. When it came time for the candidate herself to address the nationwide focus on her contest, just a day after she rallied with a pair of cabinet secretaries, Trump’s name didn’t come up.
“The enthusiasm really is there: everywhere I go throughout the district, they don’t want someone who was hand-picked by Nancy Pelosi,” she said. “They want someone who can carry on the great leadership we’ve had from Tom Price, Johnny Isakson, and Newt Gingrich.”
Trump, however, inserted himself into the race Monday by book-ending the day with tweets urging Georgians to support Handel and attacking Ossoff. An outside group run by members of his campaign team pumped in a late injection of cash to back Handel’s efforts.
Even as the candidates insisted that it’s unfair to read their race as anything more than a contest to represent a suburban Atlanta district, the national spotlight was unavoidable. The race is already by far the most expensive congressional contest ever — up to $50 million in spending, according to an Atlanta Journal Constitution tally — and national groups have reported pumping in over $750,000 in new investments to swing the vote in the final five days alone, according to a POLITICO analysis of federal filings.
Another reminder of the stakes came from former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who sent Handel’s email list a stark warning: "With Election Day tomorrow, this race is in a dead heat with serious national implications.”
Then there was Kander, who stood next to Ossoff Monday and thanked his volunteers: “You know the whole country is watching."