The Georgia special election between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff could come down to just a few thousand votes on Tuesday, after a six-month campaign that has attracted outsized national attention as a key early test for President Donald Trump’s party.
Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan have all trekked to Georgia and the campaigns and outside groups have spent a record $50 million in the past six months, building the stakes and the suspense to unprecedented levels in a House district that had always been solidly Republican — until Trump finished barely ahead of Hillary Clinton there in the 2016 presidential election.
“The whole country is watching and the whole country is waiting with bated breath to see what we’re going to say in Georgia,” Ossoff told volunteers at an event last weekend.
The result: Both parties are tense — both candidates have been receiving threats at the end of a fiery campaign — and voters are exhausted. “You can’t avoid it. It’s everywhere,” said Susan Dawsey, an Ossoff volunteer.
“Symbolically, the stakes are as high as they can be,” said Chip Lake, a Republican consultant in the state. “We didn’t need a competitive special election to know that we’re going to be on defense in 2018, but it does confirm what we already know — we have our work cut out for us if we don’t want to lose the House.”
Ossoff has led Handel in most polling, but not by enough to make Democrats comfortable or totally confident, even as Republicans privately fret about their odds.
Recent public surveys have ranged from a tied vote to a 7-point Ossoff lead, with the average landing in between. But there are simply more Republican voters in this district, and the GOP is using every tool it has to get them to vote: Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who represented the district until this winter, returned Saturday to campaign for Handel alongside Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor.
Handel has denounced Ossoff, who has campaigned as a moderate cost-cutter and a “fresh, independent voice,” as an out-of-touch liberal hiding his values from the voters. Handel has repeatedly said Ossoff would be a better fit “some 3,000 miles away in San Francisco,” echoing an attack line from outside groups that have linked the Democrat to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and criticized him for raising money outside the district.
Handel has cast herself as an experienced conservative committed to tax cuts and a more traditional fit for the longtime Republican district.
But Ossoff has been buoyed by unusual energy coursing through the Democratic base in the early days of the Trump administration. Small-dollar donors from around the country have given more than $23 million to Ossoff’s campaign, a record for a House candidate.
Strategists from both parties often warn that special elections are not good harbingers of midterm success. But Democrats point out that “there are 70 or so Republicans in Congress with seats that are more evenly split than this one,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman. Many of them will have experienced incumbents defending them, but the special election does suggest Democrats can make strong runs at Republican territory right now.
An army of fired-up Ossoff volunteers has combed the district for support for months — more than half of district voters said in a recent Atlanta Journal Constitution poll that the Ossoff campaign had personally contacted them — and they are aiming to knock on more than 30,000 doors per day this weekend in a final push for votes on June 20.
Early voting in the special election closed on Friday, and over 140,000 people have already cast ballots, including 36,000 who didn’t vote in the April 18 primary. Election-watchers and operatives said they expect total turnout to surpass participation in regular midterm elections, which has hovered around 210,000 voters in the past.
Analyses of the early votes aren’t giving “clear indicators one way or the other,” as to how this race may unfold on June 20, said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist and voter-turnout expert who is monitoring the race.
Republicans noted that Democratic participation in early voting is “down by a quarter from where it was in April,” said Mark Rountree, a Republican pollster in Georgia.
“It’s showing in the early vote that Ossoff may not be exciting the young leftists that he got last time since his tone has changed,” Rountree said, pointing to Ossoff’s strategy of appealing to moderates as an explanation for a Democratic drop off. “His messaging in the runoff has been very bland and neutral.”
However, it could pay off in crossover votes: A source familiar with the Ossoff campaign said their modeling shows that 10 to 15 percent of Republican voters could break to Ossoff, who is also winning virtually every Democratic voter. Analysis by a GOP analytics firm after the April primary showed that Ossoff was already attracting a small but significant share of cross-party support at that point.
Democrats noted that 33,000 new voters have participated in early voting, a group that is trending “more diverse, so more likely to be African-American by a significant margin, and more likely to be women,” said Tom Bonier, a Democratic strategist and CEO at TargetSmart, a data-analytics firm.
“The Ossoff campaign has to feel good about the fact that they’re pulling out unlikely voters who, the demographics would suggest, are supporting Ossoff,” he added.
But Bonier said he is concerned that public polling could be “painting an overly optimistic picture” for Ossoff.
“When you go through all of the early voting analysis, you end up in the same place,” Bonier said.
“This is an incredibly close race.”