ATLANTA—The upcoming Georgia special election to fill the seat of Health and Human Services Sec. Tom Price is putting the “jungle” in jungle primary. With 18 candidates, a $14 million tsunami of TV ads, a Republican field attacking each other like a pack of dingoes, and an unknown Democrat raising cash like a presidential contender, the usually ho-hum race for the suburban-Atlanta House seat has become an all-out war. If no candidate clears 50 percent in Tuesday’s primary, the top two will go on to a June 20 runoff and the war will continue for another eight weeks.
At the heart of the chaos is President Donald Trump, whose election in November solidified his base among the Tea Party faithful here, but also lit a fire of national resistance whose singular goal recently has become flipping Georgia’s 6th congressional district to Democratic hands. Trump won the solidly Republican district by just 1.5 percent. over Hillary Clinton.
In an ordinary election year, in an ordinary time, an open seat in or around Atlanta’s wealthy northern suburbs would be a mostly friendly contest between whichever two Republicans said they wanted the job. But the race has drawn a melee of 11 GOP hopefuls, a scramble of activists, gray-haired state-senators, Trump enthusiasts and businessmen.
Instead of getting behind one or two of the strongest candidates, local Republican leaders have similarly scattered their support among the field. Former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss is backing Karen Handel, a former secretary of state, while current U.S. Sen. David Perdue has gotten behind former state Sen. Dan Moody. Sean Hannity endorsed Tea Party founder Amy Kremer, while Sen. Marco Rubio, who won the district in the GOP presidential primary, is supporting state Sen. Judson Hill.
The Club for Growth has pumped $600,000 into the race to help businessman Bob Gray, but is also running a blistering attack ad against Handel, who is also getting attacked by Gray and Moody. Gray claims he was the only candidate to back Trump early on, but it was Bruce LeVell, not Gray, who arrived at an event in a “Trump 2020” campaign bus and had former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski stumping for him. Confused yet? That’s the problem for Republicans.
“It’s crazy, it’s a true jungle primary,” said Kerwin Swint, the chair of the political science department at Kennesaw State University, which sits just beyond the district’s current lines. “This is one of the headaches behind the way that Georgia does special elections, but it’s usually not this complex and it’s presenting some difficulties Republicans clearly didn’t anticipate.”
Among those difficulties, along with the fact that the monster field has split money, air time, and enthusiasm between the Republicans, is that it has also opened the door to Jon Ossoff, the 30 year-old former congressional staffer whom national Democrats got behind early and rocketed to an unprecedented fundraising haul. Ossoff’s campaign reported $8.3 million raised since January, with much of that coming from small-dollar donations around the country through DailyKos, an early endorser, and ActBlue, the liberal activist fundraising portal.
Chip Lake, a longtime Republican consultant in Georgia, described Ossoff’s fundraising as an alarming possible glimpse into the future for Republican candidates in a Trump era.
“I’ve been in this business for over 25 years and I have never seen anything like what Job Ossoff has been able to do,” Lake said. “That doesn’t mean he can win, but he is a shoe-in to make the runoff and two or three weeks ago we were worried he could get to 50 percent. They say money can’t buy you love, but it can buy a lot of votes.”
Giving money to Ossoff seems to be downright therapeutic for Democrats across the country looking for a way to stick it to Trump. Locally, volunteering for Ossoff seems to have the same result.
Turin Mamoun, a stay-at-home mom from East Cobb County, Ga. went to her first-ever political meeting in January after Trump was elected president. “I’m worried, very worried,” she said before heading out to canvass for Ossoff Saturday afternoon. “I’ve been a Democrat my whole life, but I’m scared now and I didn’t even know where to begin.”
Mamoun and her friend, Sara Mhazel, met Ossoff at the Cobb County Democrats’ meeting just after he got into the race. Mhazel had never volunteered for a campaign. Mamoun had never even had a sign in her yard. They were both soon canvassing for Ossoff and his campaign in the sixth district, where they both live.
“I’ve spent my entire professional life promoting democracy overseas, when all of the sudden I woke up in November and realized we were neglecting our own backyard,” said Mhazel, a lawyer at Atlanta’s Carter Center. How much of the race is about sending a message to Donald Trump? “A lot,” they both said.
If the race does go to a runoff, conventional wisdom says the top Republican should easily win in June, as conservatives coalesce behind a single candidate. Democrats may have the energy in the district right now, but for decades Republicans have had the infrastructure that candidates typically need to win, especially in a special election in June.
“Democrats see an opportunity. They’ve galvanized, they’ve organized, they’ve raised a ton of money, they’re going all out,” Kennesaw State’s Kerwin Swint said. “But just looking at the numbers, if Ossoff doesn’t win Tuesday, I just don’t see how he can win. What are you going to do, bus a lot of people in from California?”
But if there’s one thing that has failed completely in the last year, it’s using past political performance to predict the future. With Trump’s approval ratings underwater, his policy positions shifting every day, and Democrats like Ossoff able to nationalize local races and raise millions from small dollar donors in a week, Republican operatives say their party may be facing an entirely new paradigm. It’s a dynamic that Lake says should worry Republicans greatly, even in a district like the Sixth that Lake sees as solidly Republican.
“We really are in no-man’s land when it comes to campaigns and elections at the federal level,” Lake said. “Any Republican would be lying to you if they told you they weren’t deeply concerned about the damage Donald Trump could cause our party over the four years he’s in office.”