When he’s up, you’re up. When he’s down, you’re down.
That may be the ultimate takeaway for national Republicans looking at the role President Donald Trump has played in the special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional district, where all politics are suddenly national. Although Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel are battling for every last vote, the $50 million blockbuster of an election has, at the end of the day, proved to be about just one person—the president.
Democratic activists have worked tirelessly to make the race a referendum on Trump, who won the solidly Republican district by just a single point in November. Although he made important gains among white, working-class voters, the highly educated, suburban Sixth is just the sort of place where Trump showed the greatest weakness across the country. If any territory will prove fertile ground for Democrats looking to pick up House seats with anti-Trump sentiments, both parties know GA-6 fits the mold.
As Election Day arrived, the consensus among longtime Republicans and those familiar with the district seemed to be that Handel has done as good a job as anyone could to coalesce Republican voters, but that she may ultimately have little control over her own destiny. Instead, whether Handle wins or loses Tuesday night may largely come down to how the suburban Atlanta district feels about the president.
“It’s Donald Trump. Make no mistake about it. The whole reason this race is competitive today is because of Donald Trump,” said longtime Republican operative Chip Lake.
“It was very difficult for Karen Handel to localize this race at all when you have such a strong national component to it,” Lake said. “To the extent of what she and her team can control, they’ve done about as good as they can do.”
Handel has had good reason to want to localize the race from the beginning. Not only did Trump underperform every local Republican on the district ballot in November, nearly every day of the special election campaign has been overshadowed by the Trump-soaked national news cycle.
From Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey to his early morning Tweet storms to the multiple investigations into Russia’s efforts to disrupt the 2016 elections, Trump’s high-drama, high controversy presidency is just about the last thing any GOP Congressional hopeful would want to talk about.
Not surprisingly, Handel has kept her focus away from Washington throughout the campaign. Her television ads have been mostly gauzy bio spots. Her interviews were almost exclusively with local media. When both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence came to Georgia to support her, the events were invitation only and closed to press. When Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, the GA-6’s former representative, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor, stumped for Handel last weekend, Handel never mentioned their boss, and Perdue spoke of Trump only once.
But no matter how strident Handel’s attempts to keep her politics local, her fortunes seem to have remained directly tied to Trump’s over the course of the campaign.
Georgia Republicans’ internal polling during the campaign has showed Handel’s performance against Ossoff ebbing and flowing along with Trump’s performance in Washington.
“When Donald Trump fired James Comey, Karen dropped a couple of points over that weekend,” said a Republican familiar with the internal polling. “The next week when the revelation came out about their Oval Office meeting and the [Comey] memo about it, she dropped another couple of points. So it looks like when the president had a bad week, she dropped a couple of points. When the president had a good week, she's back up a few. When the dust has settled on this race, I don’t know that it matters what ads either candidate ran, it’s all about Trump.”
A review of public polling trends showed a similar dynamic, with Handel’s performance in polls mirroring Trump’s approval rating over the course of the campaign. Handel led Ossoff in early May, as Congress and the White House avoided a government shutdown and Trump’s approval bumped up. But she struggled against Ossoff in June as Trump feuded with James Comey and Trump’s approval rating tumbled.
An Atlanta-Journal Constitution poll last week showed Ossoff opening up a lead over Handel, when Trump showed just a 35% approval rating in the Sixth district. The most recent Landmark poll showed Handel and Ossoff neck and neck, as the president’s approval rating has ticked upward.
Todd Rheme, a veteran Republican in the state, said Handel has been better positioned than nearly any other potential candidate to reach past Trump’s influence because she is well known in the district from her time running the local Chamber of Commerce, the local GOP, and as the former Secretary of State.
“Handel has done the best she can to navigate the voters’ feelings towards Trump, the complexity of those feelings,” Rheme said. “And the president hasn’t made it any easier on her.”
Rheme also said he believed Handel would be winning the race by a mile without Trump in the White House, instead of being in the dog fight she’s found herself in with Ossoff, who has raised an astounding $23 million, largely through small-dollar Democratic networks of activists across the country.
“There’s no question in my mind that Karen would be walking away with it,” he said. “I've never seen the level of activity and animosity toward a politician as the Left toward Donald Trump.”