Republican anxiety is mounting about a runoff election in a typically red Georgia House district—a race that will offer an early test of Democratic motivation just weeks after Donald Trump’s health care repeal bill passed the House.
Republicans in Washington and Georgia acknowledge that a GOP loss in the special election runoff between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff is a distinct possibility, a development that would harden the narrative that Republicans face a daunting task in maintaining control of Congress in 2018. It would also underscore the challenges facing Republicans running in districts Donald Trump either lost or, as is the case in Georgia, barely won.
“Republicans are nervous about where the political environment is right now,” said Chip Lake, a GOP strategist in Georgia, noting the responsibilities and pressures that come with being the governing party tackling thorny policy issues like health care. “The political environment right now, from an electoral perspective, certainly looks to favor the Democrats, because they appear united in opposing everything this president does.”
“If we were to lose this race,” he continued, “it’s going to be very hard to spin it that it was not a national election.”
Republicans were already nervous after Ossoff demonstrated surprising strength, coming in first in the initial contest last month to replace now-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in a suburban Atlanta-area district—just short of the 50 percent threshold that would have handed him outright victory. But Republicans had hopes that, with one Republican candidate in the mix instead of nearly a dozen, the GOP would have a clearer path once the race moved to a runoff.
Yet about three weeks into the runoff, interviews with a half-dozen Republican operatives and strategists familiar with the race reveal a recognition that Democrats have enthusiasm on their side.
“Democrats, they did a good job, they are fired up,” said a Georgia Republican strategist who worked for another candidate in the first round of the special election, but doesn’t blame Handel for the challenges of the race. “It makes it easier because they have a villain. Republicans don’t have a villain. We’re using Nancy Pelosi, but that would be like the Democrats going back to Newt [Gingrich]. There’s an energy level on the Democratic side. There’s not an energy level on the Republican side.”
Last November, Trump barely eked out a win in the 6th Congressional District. There are plenty of other similarly moderate districts across the country where he scraped by with only a narrow victory—and 23 districts that Hillary Clinton won, but that are represented by Republican House members. Many of them are facing intense backlash over their votes to repeal Obamacare, an issue that Democrats see as a motivator for their already-angry base in the final weeks before the June 20 vote in Georgia, and one they hope will help propel their candidates through the midterms.
Republicans say the health care vote could just as easily energize their base, signaling that the GOP Congress can in fact land some accomplishments after a sputtering first attempt at health care repeal and replace that was hugely deflating to their voters, while also cautioning against reading too much into the results of a special election.
And certainly, as influential Republican state leaders coalesce around Handel in the two-way runoff, she is favored to win the race. Ossoff, a young Democrat who has never held an elected position, notched an impressive 48 percent in the first round—but, Republicans argue, Handel has more room to grow her lead in a heavily Republican district, especially as her campaign and allies seek to paint Ossoff as an out-of-touch liberal masquerading as a centrist.
But even though Republicans have held that seat since the 1970s, no one questions that it is now in play, even in a two-way match up.
“Obviously Ossoff did well in the first round, he’s got a base of support out there,” said Jeremy Brand, a Georgia Republican consultant. “The numbers do work out with the Republicans. Karen Handel, with the right effort, should be successful. But it’s not a situation that can be taken for granted. It requires a very aggressive turnout effort from the Republican side.”
Both sides are getting big and expensive boosts from national groups pouring money into the race, which looks on track to be the most expensive House race in history. Major Republican groups including the Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Republican Congressional Committee are heavily investing in pro-Handel efforts, and House Speaker Paul Ryan just did a fundraiser with her and is expected to campaign with her later this month. Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is supporting Ossoff, who has also been a favorite of progressive donors.
Democrats watching the race also say enthusiasm for Ossoff's candidacy hasn't waned since the initial April election. What's more, they say he's held onto a small but critical band of Republicans and right-leaning independents – support he needs to win in June.
And some national Republicans have expressed unease with how Handel’s campaign has unfolded since the initial contest. She has attracted negative headlines over her husband’s retweet of a racially charged message—a mistake, her campaign said, and he deleted it—and she was mocked over embarrassing remarks that surfaced in b-roll footage ("I don't think that's had any bearing on the momentum or the trajectory or the choice in this race,” said senior Handel adviser Rob Simms.)
More significantly, there is a perception among some operatives that she hasn’t been as publicly active on the campaign trail as Ossoff has been.
“We are two-plus weeks into the election, and Jon Ossoff today did a press conference where he announced, in detail, a plan to cut spending. He’s out there rebranding himself, positioning himself as a centrist, the Handel campaign has been MIA,” said one national Republican strategist following the race closely, in an interview on Thursday. “A lot of people are concerned.”
Another Republican strategist with knowledge of the race and the district warned, “I think Republicans are likely to lose it. If they don’t, it’s only because it’s pure luck.”
Simms, the former executive director of the NRCC and a well-regarded operative, disputed the idea that Handel hasn’t been active. She made a high-profile appearance with Trump when he was in town for a National Rifle Association event, earning his public praise as well as his support at a fundraiser. And Simms pointed to events she has done with Chambers of Commerce and with other Georgia lawmakers including Gov. Nathan Deal and Sen. Johnny Isakson. She was also slated to hold two events in Cobb County, located right outside Atlanta, over the weekend, he said. And she has earned some positive local coverage for congratulating Ossoff on his recent engagement.
"She is campaigning publicly,” Simms said. “She's also spending the time that's necessary for a race like this to make sure she has the resources to compete with someone who's going to spend in the runoff."
And in Georgia, Handel has a record as a hard worker and a tough campaigner, something even sometimes-adversaries acknowledge.
“It’s not Karen’s fault,” said the Georgia strategist who worked for another candidate in the primary. “It’s just, this is supposed to be a safe Republican seat. There’s some aggravation from D.C. that we even have to do this…the truth is, this is just the reality. The Democratic candidate has been able to raise a ton of money. We need to gear up.”
Lake added that “while I think the environment will dictate that it’s a close race,” it remains a heavily Republican district, and “we have a candidate who provides a very good contrast to Jon Ossoff. We look forward to the next six weeks to find that contrast a little bit more.”
Simms said the campaign plans to highlight just that contrast (in return, the Ossoff campaign and the DCCC have used their TV ads in recent weeks to label Handel a self-serving career politician, an effort clearly targeted at keeping GOP-leaning voters from supporting the Republican nominee.)
“The Democrats are doing everything they can to nationalize this race behind a candidate who's going to spend...and who has had a clear path at all of this since February,” Simms said, nodding to the fact that the Democratic side wasn’t as crowded as the Republican aisle in the first round of voting.
There is still plenty of time, national Republicans note, and Handel will have robust support from the national GOP infrastructure, as well as strong backing of Georgia Republican leadership in a district that should favor her. But the environment continues to be unpredictable—and risky.
“Win this race or not, we better figure out earlier in this election cycle than we normally do—a lot earlier—how we’re going to position ourselves, our candidates, and what our candidates are going to run on in the 2018 midterms,” Lake said. “It’s an exercise that normally starts to happen in the first quarter of an election year. Those discussions are going on. They need to, probably, earlier than we ever have.”
Alex Roarty contributed to this report.