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Voters head to the polls Tuesday in Georgia for the most-hyped special election in years. The race pits a 30-year-old Democratic political neophyte against Georgia’s former Republican secretary of state. It’s viewed as the first major referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency.
Voters in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District will head to the polls on Tuesday to choose between Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democrat and political neophyte, and Republican and Georgia’s former secretary of state, Karen Handel.
The special election is one of the most anticipated in recent memory. It has seen record high early-voting turnout and garnered over $51 million in spending, making it the most expensive House race in US history.
It has been billed as the first major referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency, and an Ossoff win in a traditionally Republican district could foreshadow a tricky electoral landscape for Republicans in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.
“Republicans won a lot of elections when [former president Barack] Obama was in office, and because of that we’re playing defense right now,” said Chip Lake, a Republican strategist in Georgia and the former Capitol Hill chief of staff. “When you win a lot of elections, you can only pat yourself on the back for so long before realizing you now have to defend those seats you won.”
Both Ossoff and Handel have drawn high-profile endorsements. Ossoff has garnered support from celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson, Chelsea Handler, and George Takei, as well as from groups like the American Nurses Association and Democracy for America. Handel has drawn extensive support from groups like National Right to Life and the US Chamber of Commerce, and from prominent members of the Republican wing, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, Vice President Mike Pence, and Trump himself.
Trump recorded a number of voter outreach calls urging constituents to cast their ballots for Handel, and he has also tweeted about the race multiple times, drawing attention to key issues like border security and healthcare reform.
“The Dems want to stop tax cuts, good healthcare and Border Security.Their ObamaCare is dead with 100% increases in P’s. Vote now for Karen H,” Trump tweeted Monday.
He added Tuesday morning: “KAREN HANDEL FOR CONGRESS. She will fight for lower taxes, great healthcare strong security-a hard worker who will never give up! VOTE TODAY.”
Healthcare takes center stage
Political strategists say more than anything else, it’s likely healthcare will be the defining issue in Georgia’s election and into next year’s midterms.
Things like the deficit, environmental protection, and other social issues are important, “but they don’t affect voters directly the way healthcare does,” said Rick Tyler, a veteran Republican strategist and former spokesperson for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“Everybody gets sick, everybody deals with doctors, everybody sees their rising premiums. It’s very real, and people see it come out of their paycheck,” Tyler added.
- Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Ossoff and Handel have largely adhered to their respective parties’ platforms on healthcare reform. Ossoff has argued in favor of keeping and reforming the Affordable Care Act and for defending access to government programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
He has also campaigned on protecting women’s healthcare providers, like Planned Parenthood, and access to contraception.
Handel has advocated for a full repeal of Obamacare, calling it “the single biggest intrusion into the lives of Americans in decades.” She endorsed the GOP’s current effort to repeal Obamacare and said that though it is “a work in progress,” it is “on the right track.”
The GOP’s replacement legislation in the House of Representatives, the American Health Care Act, is facing a steep uphill climb amid intense public backlash. After a rocky start, the bill passed the House.
The Senate is formulating its own version of the legislation, and it has faced increasing backlash in recent days for what has been a relatively secretive negotiating process with no public hearings or discussions on the bill. Several polls released in late May found that the bill’s latest version was favored by less than one-third of American voters, and a June survey from the left-leaning Public Policy Polling pegged the AHCA at a 24% approval rating.
The GOP’s managing of the Obamacare repeal effort could weigh down Handel and 2018 Republican congressional candidates, strategists said.
“I can’t imagine it could have been handled any worse by Congress than it already has been,” Tyler said, adding that it was “hypocritical” for Republicans to shun transparency on the bill when they criticized Democrats for doing the same during Obama’s presidency.
“Nobody knows what’s in the [Republican] plan, and Democrats are really going to capitalize on that,” Tyler said.
An aide for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said while the race between Handel and Ossoff has been increasingly tight – a number of surveys show them polling within the margin of error – the GOP’s healthcare fumble may give Ossoff a critical boost.
Healthcare reform may wield particular significance in Georgia’s 6th district. Ossoff and Handel are vying for a seat that’s open because “the president selected Tom Price, who held the district, for a cabinet position,” Lake said. “And not just any cabinet position. He’s the Health and Human Services secretary with the sole mission of dismantling Obamacare.”
Those factors, Lake said, culminate in a “tremendous” amount of energy on both sides, but particularly among Democrats. “They see an opportunity to win a race in a Republican district and they’ve gone all in to do it. Their base is energized, they have the momentum, and that’s why this district is competitive.”
- Thomson Reuters
‘Democrats are angry’
Trump’s combative nature and the controversy surrounding his administration has played a key role in galvanizing the opposition, said Glen Bolger, a longtime Republican pollster and co-founder of the firm Public Opinion Strategies.
“Ossoff has been successful because Democrats are angry,” Bolger said. “They want to send a message, and they’re looking for opportunities because they felt like they let it get away in 2016.”
But that dynamic is not uncommon, particularly when the White House is controlled by the opposing party. In the 2006 midterm elections during George W. Bush’s presidency, Democrats won control of Congress. In 2010, when Obama was in the White House, Republicans took back the House, and they regained control of the Senate in 2014.
“Now that the pendulum’s swinging back the other way,” Lake said, “Republicans are playing defense and Democrats are on the offense.”
Ossoff has a particularly good chance in Georgia because he fits the district he wants to represent, Tyler said.
“Typical Democratic candidates don’t fit southern, suburban districts like this, which is why they lose. But Ossoff is not a typical progressive candidate,” he said.
Ossoff opposes progressive pillars like pushing for single-payer healthcare and increasing income taxes. He has also championed fiscal responsibility on the campaign trail in an attempt to win over more moderate voters and undecideds who lean Republican.
Democrats may have to put forward more candidates like Ossoff if they want to take back control, Tyler said
. “They’re going to have to recruit candidates who are pro-life, who are fiscally conservative, who defend the Second Amendment. That’s just the reality. You can’t compete in a district and be 180 degrees out of step with the culture,” he said.
A long road ahead for Republicans
Strategists say that Republicans are caught between a rock and a hard place, with the situation likely exacerbated by a White House that’s been taken off course by mounting controversies and internal strife. Trump has had no major legislative achievements five months into his term, and his agenda has been stalled by a number of congressional and FBI investigations into Russian election meddling and the Trump campaign’s possible role in it.
- Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
As the president has grown increasingly agitated and lashed out in response to the ongoing inquiries, congressional Republican candidates like Handel have seen their own numbers take a hit.
According to an internal GOP poll cited by Politico, increased coverage of the Trump-Russia controversy has coincided with a decrease in Handel’s poll numbers. And one private survey, Politico said, saw Trump’s approval rating drop from 54% to 45% in the district since February.
In what looks like an acknowledgement of Trump’s waning popularity in the area, Handel has said that she is not “an extension of the White House.”
Tyler said the Russia controversy could be connected to Handel’s decline in the polls because although the 6th district is a traditionally Republican district, it’s “a pretty pragmatic and practical district in that they want to see the president and the Republican party move an agenda and get things done.”
If Trump “says things that are destructive to the Republican agenda and he keeps getting distracted by coverage of the Russia story, voters won’t like that,” Tyler added.
To protect their chances against a Democratic onslaught in upcoming elections, Republicans need to focus on their agenda and the president needs to get on the same page as congressional leaders, Bolger said.
“They need to keep the economy humming along, and the president needs to cut down on the chaos,” Bolger said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in the White House, on Twitter, and even in Congress,” and that needs to be controlled, he added.
As far as Georgia goes, Republicans are typically favored to win the district because it’s an open, suburban seat in the South, which is where the party runs strongest.
“This is important. If we don’t win this election, that would be a problem,” Lake said.