SANDY SPRINGS, Georgia—Take the New Hampshire presidential primary, move it next to a Waffle House, douse it in cash and the sweltering June heat of Georgia, and you’ll get the special election runoff in the state’s 6th Congressional District.
“What’s happening? The president is happening,” said Barbara Carr, a 6th District voter who had volunteered to hold a Jon Ossoff sign, along with a dripping Popsicle, on Saturday as the temperature climbed past 90 degrees. Trump “doesn’t represent my values.”
The hopes of local Democrats like Carr and others across the country are piled onto Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional staffer who was practically unknown—even to fellow Georgia Democrats—before 2017. But when civil rights icon (and a former boss of Ossoff’s) Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) endorsed him in January, a firehose of small-dollar donations from Democratic activists began to pour into Ossoff’s campaign coffers and never stopped.
The nonstop money bomb allowed Ossoff to raise a truly obscene amount of money, $23 million so far, and build a monster campaign big enough to challenge both the Republican machine in Georgia and the Republican on the ballot against him on Tuesday, former Secretary of State Karen Handel. Keenly aware that a loss in Georgia would be spun as a loss for the president and his agenda, National Republican leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, sent super-sized resources of their own to Georgia. The $50 million-plus contest has now become the most expensive House race in American history.
“They’re getting statewide saturation,” said Jeff DiSantis, a longtime Democratic operative in the state who ran Michelle Nunn’s 2014 Senate race. “Everybody knows everything there is to know. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it, even in a presidential [election].”
It is hard to describe the sheer scope of the campaign Ossoff has been able to build, first to win 48 percent of the vote in the April primary and now to be running even with Handel in a district that is widely considered “R +10,” meaning a GOP candidate starts out with a safe 10-point advantage over any Democrat they’ll face.
While most political candidates, including Handel, have to spend hours a day, and sometimes their entire day, calling wealthy donors for campaign contributions, the small-dollar activist machine fueled by Daily Kos and End Citizens United has largely freed Ossoff from the onus of call time. Instead of dialing for dollars, Ossoff can show up at nearly every meet-and-greet, neighborhood meeting, or canvass party he gets invited to.
He and his campaign can also knock on voters’ doors. Lots of them. With two days left before Election Day, the Ossoff campaign has knocked on more than 500,000 voter doors, including 80,000 on Saturday alone. The campaign has six field offices, more than 100 full-time paid staffers, and more than 12,000 active volunteers. The Georgia Democratic Party has focused another 12 full-time staffers solely on minority voter engagement in the district.
An Atlanta-Journal Constitution poll showed that 51 percent of likely voters had been reached directly by the Ossoff campaign, while 32 percent of voters said they’d heard from Handel or her team.
But that same poll also revealed the greatest hurdle Handel faces on Tuesday, and it isn’t Jon Ossoff or his operation. Instead, it is the broad anti-Trump sentiment in the district, including that 35 percent approval rating.
Stuck between an electorate that mostly doesn’t like Trump and a party base that loves the guy, Handel has been forced to tiptoe across a thread-thin Trump high wire. That has meant sticking like glue to the conservative methods and messages that have been winning the district since 1974 and ignoring everything else, including the fact that Trump is the president.
Although Trump came to Georgia for Handel, the event was a closed-door fundraiser. Same for Vice President Mike Pence, whose trip South coincided with former FBI director James Comey’s explosive testimony to Congress.
At Handel’s final get-out-the-vote rally on Saturday, she featured Sonny Perdue, who was first elected Georgia governor in 2002, and former Rep. Tom Price, who held the 6th Congressional District seat before being named health and human services secretary. Both are Trump Cabinet members who never mentioned the president’s name once, other than other than Perdue’s stunning but accurate acknowledgement that Trump may have offended even Republicans in the room.
“I know some of you out there, some Republicans, may even be turned off by our president,” he said. “But let me tell you, this president keeps his promises.”
That event, like Handel’s campaign overall, was cautious, traditional, and almost frozen in a time years ago when Republicans were ascendant, Democrats had been wiped out in Georgia, and Trump was still just a millionaire without a reality television show.
If it seems like a risk to to run a traditional Republican campaign in a changing district, Republican operative Chip Lake said it’s the smartest way Handel could have handled it.
“That’s the only strategy that can win in this environment,” Lake said. “Any federal race has a national component. This one has a national component on steroids.”
Jeff DiSantis, the Democratic veteran, also pointed to Trump as the dominant player in the race, above and beyond even Ossoff or Handel.
“Ossoff would not be in the position he’s in if it were not for Trump,” DiSantis said. “There are clearly Republican voters who are reassessing their partisan affiliation. You could turn out every Democrat in that district and it still would not be enough to win. But to some Republicans, Trump is the brand and they’re not going back.”
With the stakes as high as they’ll ever be, both sides are all in. Speaker Ryan’s Congressional Leadership PAC has plowed more than $5 million into the race, while the National Republican Campaign Committee has made multimillion-dollar ad buys to supplement the $4.2 million it has raised.
And even though Ossoff can barely spend all the money his own campaign is raising, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has pumped nearly $6 million into the race on top of that.
A Handel victory will be a much-needed boost for Republicans, who will have won three for three in special elections this year, even if they win ugly.
But an Ossoff victory will be hoisted like a national championship trophy overhead by Democrats as proof that the polls are real, voters are angry, and getting in bed with Trump in 2016 will cost his fellow Republicans dearly in 2018 and beyond.
Even Republicans who believe Handel will win are talking about the once unthinkable possibility that she might not.
“If Karen loses, Republicans should close their eyes, put their heads down, and pray for a long time,” Chip Lake said. “And we’re going to have to start having the conversation publicly that we’re already having privately: What in the hell are we going to do in 2018 with this guy as president as the leader of the party?”