DUNWOODY, Ga. — The special election to replace Republican Tom Price in Georgia's Atlanta-area 6th Congressional District has become a contemporary politics version of World War I, with both sides dug into fixed positions, both pouring people and money into the effort — it will be by far the most expensive House race in history — and no one holding much hope the results will settle anything.
Insiders now estimate that by June 20, Election Day, the campaigns and groups supporting Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff will have spent about $40 million here — nearly doubling the previous record for the most costly House race. All agree that much spending for a single House seat is crazy, but they've sunk so much into the race they'll be damned if they'll let the other guy take the prize now.
"It's sort of the political equivalent of a bidding war for a company that's gotten completely out of hand, in which the symbolic value of the acquisition has exceeded its underlying value — and I think now there's no way to turn it off," said Ralph Reed, the longtime conservative activist who lives near the district and whose group, Faith and Freedom Coalition, is one of those pouring money into the race. Of the three special elections to fill seats held by House Republicans who left to join the Trump administration, in Kansas, Montana and here, the GOP has already won two. Democrats anxious to show they can ride Trump's unpopularity to victory have one chance left. "Kansas is over, Montana is over," noted Reed. "This is it."
Known in shorthand as GA06, the 6th District has been reliably Republican for a long time. Last November, Price won it by 24 points. Before Price's dozen years in the seat, it was held by now-Sen. Johnny Isakson, and before him, by Newt Gingrich from 1979 to 1999. But even with that history, and even though Price won by a lot, Donald Trump won GA06 by a tiny margin — 1.5 points. That's what gives Democrats hope.
But it can be hard to calculate to what extent the race is about Trump, and to what extent it's not. In one sense, everything in politics these days is about Trump. So talk to some Ossoff supporters, and the race is a referendum on the president.
"To a large degree, it is," said Melissa Mitchell, of Dunwoody, who came to see Ossoff on a recent Sunday evening at the Dunwoody North Driving Club. Mitchell explained that climate change is an extremely important issue to her, and she was appalled by Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement. For many women in GA06, she said, much of the congressional race is about the president.
"A lot of the women, particularly middle aged women and older in this district, it's very anti-Trump," she said. "What Trump did was galvanize people. A lot of people weren't involved. So many in this district are involved for the very first time because they're horrified … so I will say to a large degree, in terms of the enthusiasm and grass roots activism, yes, it is."
I asked if Mitchell hoped her vote for Ossoff would be send a message to the president. "I would be ecstatic for Jon to win and send a message to Trump … I know Trump cares and he's listening … and I would love, beyond all the loftier reasons, I would love to stick it to him, actually."
She laughed, and perhaps taken aback by her own frankness, said, "Don't just use that last part." I promised I would quote more than just a few of her words.
"It'll be a victory for authenticity and a dignified message," said Adam Markey, also of Dunwoody, who came to hear Ossoff. "I'm so tired of being embarrassed by a president. And being embarrassed by those that stand by him and will not stand up to him. Whether it's a tweet about the London mayor or another of these other ridiculous things that come out of his mouth or his computer … I've never been embarrassed to be an American before. But at least with this I can be proud to be part of the 6th District."
"I think it's a referendum on truth," said another man who didn't want to give his name. "So if Trump doesn't represent the truth and doesn't represent sanity, which I don't think he does, then I think … it's really important to take a step and say enough is enough."
Ossoff has encouraged and fed those feelings — indeed, his campaign began with a (very successful) fundraising appeal to "make Trump furious." But at other times he has taken care to present the race as a contest not about Trump but about the future of GA06. His supporters know that, and they agree, sort of, but they still feel what they feel. In that sense, Ossoff doesn't even need to talk about Trump. And indeed, in a brief speech in Dunwoody, Ossoff never mentioned the name.
Instead, Ossoff spoke in a sort of gentle code. When he talked about "our shared commitment in this community to decency," and about "basic standards of respect on the part of our elected representatives and in our government," nobody had to guess who he was talking about. Still, in recent days Ossoff has been careful not to make the race — or at least what comes out of his mouth — too overtly about the president.
Why? One reason is that, even though Trump won by a slim margin in GA06, he appears to still have that slim margin of support. "If Trump were minus-10 in the district, Ossoff would rail on him — and it would work," says one pro-GOP strategist working on Handel's behalf. Instead, the strategist said his group had polled the district just the night before — that would be June 4 — and found Trump at plus-two approval, 48 percent to 46 percent. "He's still basically where he was on election night," noted the strategist.
Indeed, another outside political type working on the race said that one thing phone bank callers hear from Republican voters in the district is, "Why aren't Republicans in Washington supporting the president?"
A walk door-to-door with yet another outside group, the conservative Americans for Prosperity, suggested Trump support remains significant. Several voters said they weren't entirely pleased with Trump — "I wish he'd get off the Twitter," one woman said, echoing others — but they were unhappy with the opposition to Trump that seems to consume the news on some days.
"I think it's a witch hunt — they're not giving him a chance," said one man in Marietta.
"I'd like to see more Republicans in Congress to pass Trump's agenda," said another, who said he would vote for Handel.
As a tax exempt nonpartisan organization, Americans for Prosperity cannot advocate the election of one candidate or the other. But each day AFP volunteers encounter voters who plan to vote for Handel and don't believe the race is a referendum on Trump. "Maybe they don't agree with everything that he's done, but they're in favor of smaller government, they're in favor of economic freedom, they're in favor of school choice," said Candace Carroll, Georgia Field Director for AFP, after a day knocking on doors. "I think some people are frustrated, and rightfully so."
Those concerns, plus healthcare, tax reform, jobs, the economy — they are the non-Trump side of the GA06 race. They're what voters here have been voting on since before Trump ever decided to run for president.
On the Democratic side, it's the environment ("the defense of our clean air and clean water," as Ossoff put it in Dunwoody), healthcare, contraception and abortion ("the defense of the rights of women in this community to access healthcare when and where they see fit"), civil liberties and civil rights ("the dignity of everyone in every community … no matter our faith, no matter our background"). Traditionally, that is not the rhetoric that wins GA06.
But then there are the times Ossoff sounds like, if not a Republican, at least not a Democrat. "Both parties in Congress waste a lot of your money — it's just on different things," he said in an ad last month. "The deficits are holding back the economy. Here's my plan: Cut the wasteful spending. Reduce the deficit, so the economy can keep growing …"
Republicans have been slamming Ossoff as a liberal Democrat — one group has relentlessly tied him to Nancy Pelosi because research tells them that some of her toxicity with the Republican base will rub off on Ossoff. "We came to the conclusion that we've just got to push him left," said one strategist. "You push him left enough, and he doesn't win in that district." They're also hitting him for not living in the district, for his youth — he's 30 years old — and lack of experience, and for what appears to be his exaggeration of his national security experience from a few years working on Capitol Hill.
Those are all weaknesses for Ossoff, but Handel has weaknesses of her own. Indeed, what is notable in talking to Republicans familiar with the race is the number of people who think she is a remarkably weak candidate. She has no business in the House of Representatives, one conservative politico told me. A "shitty candidate," said another. Widely disliked, said yet another. And these are the people actively working on her behalf.
On the other hand, one of those Republicans reminded me, the GOP just won a race with a weak candidate who body-slammed a reporter in a widely-reported incident the day before the election. They can win with Handel, too.
But at the moment, that is not at all guaranteed. First, both sides agree that Democrats have an edge in intensity. "They are on fire," said one local politico. They are still stunned by last November's Trump victory and are revved up to win something — anything — now.
"The race got close because the left is energized, enraged, and desperate," former GA06 Rep. Gingrich told me in an email exchange. "National money made Ossoff the prohibitive frontrunner, while the Republicans were underfunded and divided."
Indeed, Ossoff came very close to winning the seat outright in April's primary; he won 92,673 votes to Handel's 38,071. Looked at another way, though, when you add Ossoff's votes to those of the other, marginal, Democrats in the race, the Democratic total was 94,202 votes. Add Handel's to the 10 other Republicans in the race, and the Republican total was 98,192 votes.
Now, early voting is already underway. Republicans believe their voters from April are coming back, and on top of that, GOP strategists see a significant number of people voting for the first time in the runoff favoring Handel.
If Handel wins, Republicans will argue that the much-ballyhooed resistance to Trump turned up nothing at the polls. If Ossoff wins, Democrats will call it the first victory of what they hope will be a huge win in 2018. But the truth is, both sides know the results of the Ossoff-Handel contest won't mean much in the scheme of things. How many special elections can you remember that did? It's entirely possible that when the regular GA06 election happens in 2018, the winner will not be either Ossoff or Handel. And special elections don't predict much about the next election year's results.
"That's the silliness of all this," noted one of the GOP strategists. "Assuming we win Georgia, we will have won all of the special elections, and it means nothing — nothing — for next year."
But for now, in the superheated atmosphere of Trump's early days in office, it's war — and neither side believes it can afford to back down.