NPR logo Results In Georgia Election Trickle In As GOP Looks To Avoid Political Headache

Results In Georgia Election Trickle In As GOP Looks To Avoid Political Headache

Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff poses with supporters outside the East Roswell Branch Library in Roswell, Ga. Alex Sanz/AP hide caption

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Alex Sanz/AP

Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff poses with supporters outside the East Roswell Branch Library in Roswell, Ga.

Alex Sanz/AP

Republicans are trying to prevent a political tremor from happening Tuesday night just north of Atlanta that would be a blow to President Trump and a boon to the rising Democratic opposition to him.

Polls have closed in a closely watched Georgia special election that Democrats have tried to turn into a referendum on Trump. If Democrat Jon Ossoff is able to top 50 percent in Tuesday's all-party primary featuring 18 candidates, he'll win outright here. As results trickle in, it's looking close.

Ossoff's victory was thought impossible months ago. This is a district, after all, that was held for two decades by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and for the past 12 years by Tom Price, an anti-Obamacare champion, who vacated the seat when he was appointed as Trump's Health and Human Services secretary.

While an outright Ossoff win Tuesday night still remains improbable, it's no longer thought to be impossible. Still, given the Republican leanings of this district, and a strong push from GOP outside groups, an outright win Tuesday might be Ossoff's best chance at winning the seat.

"I'm very concerned," said Tom Boyle, a 76-year-old retiree from Roswell, Ga., as he was making calls at a Republican phone bank on Monday afternoon.

The stakes are high for both parties. If Republicans lose, it would send a warning signal to the Trump White House ahead of next year's midterms, as Republicans look to hold onto control of Congress — and Trump's agenda. But if Democrats can't win, either now or in a June runoff, given all the money and resources poured into the contest, it will raise questions about their ability to compete in the types of districts they'll need to win back the House, beginning with one like this in Georgia.

Supporters at an election eve rally for Democrat Jon Ossoff line up to get canvassing packets. Jessica Taylor/NPR hide caption

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Jessica Taylor/NPR

"A chance to make a statement"

Ossoff, a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker and former Capitol Hill aide, has raised eye-popping amounts of money (much of it from outside the state) and captured national attention.

"The eyes of the whole country are on us right now," Ossoff told volunteers gathered Saturday evening to canvass at his Chamblee campaign office. "The eyes of the world are on us right now. We are the first up to bat in the country with a chance to make a statement about what we stand for."

Sensing opportunity, Democrats have poured in resources — and the race has drawn celebrity attention. Actor Samuel L. Jackson, for example, cut a radio ad supporting Ossoff, warning, "Remember what happened the last time people stayed home — we got stuck with Trump." Actress Alyssa Milano helped drive early voters to the polls.

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The Democratic congressional hopeful didn't mention the president by name in addressing his supporters, and some of his ads don't either. In fact, some of them don't mention his party affiliation at all and tick off some downright Republican-sounding ideas, such as cutting spending, boosting infrastructure and attracting more local tech jobs. Some of his ads do take explicit aim at Trump though, with one trolling him for his rabid tweeting habit and another where he promises to hold the president accountable.

In a brief interview with NPR after an afternoon canvass launch Saturday, Ossoff admitted that the race had somewhat taken on a life of its own, but he continued to stress many of the local issues at the core of his economic message. He maintained he can win outright, but if that doesn't happen, his strategy won't change.

"A win on Tuesday is certainly within reach, and special elections are always unpredictable," Ossoff said. "If we don't clear 50, we'll be able to fight and win in a runoff."

Democrats are trying to capitalize on Trump's unpopularity, and this is one of the first chances for them to take out their frustrations with his presidency. Giving Democrats hope is that even though this is a right-leaning district, it isn't exactly Trump country. While Price was easily re-elected with more than 60 percent of the vote, Trump won the district by less than 2 points. It's indicative of the kind of place Trump struggled throughout the country — rapidly growing, diverse and well-educated suburbs, where Republicans usually do well.

The president himself underscored the importance of the race — and the possible blowback a loss could have for his own political capital. He recorded a last-minute robocall against Ossoff and poked Democrats with at least four tweets in the last day about the race:

The election comes on the heels of a better-than-expected finish for a Democrat in a special election in a very Republican district in Kansas last week — something Democrats hope portends well in this more moderate district. That result may have also helped to wake up Republicans, who hope that late attacks on Ossoff — tying him to the national party and pointing out the bulk of the $8.3 million he has raised has come from out of state — have at least stunted his rise in the polls.

That may be why even rank-and-file Republicans here were on message, toeing the party line, in the final hours. Boyle, for example, described Ossoff as "the man who's being bankrolled by the West Coast. When people out of state start throwing in $6 million to $8 million, I get worried. I don't like outsiders dictating what we do in Georgia."

Ossoff is one of five Democrats on the ballot Tuesday, but the national party lined up quickly behind him, in large part due to the strong support he had from the district's neighboring congressmen, Reps. John Lewis and Hank Johnson. Ossoff himself actually lives just outside the district (though he grew up in it). Republicans have hammered him on that fact and claimed he has tried to inflate his resume and the national-security work he did as an aide for Johnson. They've tried to highlight his age, too. Ossoff and his supporters argue fresh, young blood isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro was on hand to help Ossoff on Saturday, and he was quick to underscore the national implications of the race on Tuesday and beyond, especially in the wake of that Kansas special election last week, where the Democratic candidate outperformed Trump by 20 points in the district.

There were plenty of signs and photos supporting President Trump at Republican candidate Bob Gray's campaign office in Johns Creek, Ga. Jessica Taylor/NPR hide caption

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Jessica Taylor/NPR

"For everyone out there who is a little bit uncomfortable with the idea that the Republicans control everything, especially with a president that is so erratic, the best way to make sure that we can have some balance is to make sure that the Democrats take back the House," Castro said — an effort he underscored began on Tuesday.

For Democrats shocked by last November's results, Ossoff's campaign has become a vehicle for them to try to effect change. Megan Prince-Miller, 33, was one of the many volunteers who came out on Saturday to campaign for Ossoff on a warm spring day, ready to knock on doors even though she was heavily pregnant and due in three weeks.

"We're having our first baby, a daughter, and, you know, it's just been on the back of our minds — what kind of world is she going to live in? And I don't want it to be the world that I think that President Trump is creating," Prince-Miller said.

Can Republicans divided become united?

Republicans vying to take on Ossoff here are reflecting the broader national divide among the GOP. They've been hampered by splits within their own base, which is choosing among 11 GOP candidates. It's become something of a circular firing squad among the Republican hopefuls.

But many of them aren't exactly running away from the president, despite the middling results he got here last November.

Former Johns Creek City Councilman Bob Gray, one of the leading GOP contenders, has pictures of Trump plastered across his main field office, along with the president's signs that read "Make America Great Again" and "America First." In an interview Friday night after a canvass kickoff, Gray praised the president for being a "disrupter" in Washington, and said he wanted to go to D.C. to be his ally.

Supporters for Republican Karen Handel wave signs along a highway in Sandy Springs, Ga. Jessica Taylor/NPR hide caption

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Jessica Taylor/NPR

"He needs willing partners in Congress to be there with him to try and affect that agenda, and I intend to do so," Gray said.

He has been endorsed by the anti-tax Club for Growth, which is attacking his chief rival, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, as a career politician — the same moniker Trump was able to successfully apply to some of his own GOP primary rivals.

In fact, on the GOP side, it's almost a similar scenario that played out during the 2016 presidential race happening — many different Republican candidates occupying different parts of the GOP ideological spectrum fighting among themselves. There have been shots lobbed among the top Republican contenders during the campaign at each other as much as at Ossoff.

Nevertheless, Republicans maintain they'll eventually come together.

"If you don't have a muddy, bloody fight in a Republican primary, you haven't had a Republican primary in this state. But we always get back together," said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, a former Georgia GOP chairman who was campaigning Monday morning with Handel at the Egg Harbor Cafe. Still, he said he'll support whoever ends up against Ossoff.

Handel, who has high name ID from several unsuccessful statewide runs, has come in second in most polls and said she feels good about her chances. And while other rivals have attacked her as a career politician, she argued that's an asset, not a liability.

"Our folks, it just took them a little more time to make their minds up because we believe in competition," Handel said, hitting Democrats for "coronating" Ossoff. "And we've had a very spirited, competitive primary on our side."

While Handel said she's supportive of the president, she's not exactly wearing it on her sleeve like Gray and other candidates are.

"This race is not about President Trump," she said. "This race is about who is the best suited to to be the next congressman."

Dalton State College students Jacob Ledford and Wesley Ross were canvassing on Saturday for former state Sen. Dan Moody, who has been endorsed by Sen. David Perdue. He's another candidate who could make the runoff, along with state Sen. Judson Hill — who has the backing of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who once represented parts of the district, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who won this district in the GOP presidential primary.

After knocking on door after door, Ledford and Ross were getting a lot of people not home or who didn't want to talk about the race — a common theme both sides are hearing in the closing days, with voters simply fed up with incessant calls and door knocks.

They recalled how Democrats have boasted about turning Georgia blue before and have put up top-flight candidates in recent elections — Jason Carter, the grandson of former president Jimmy Carter, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014, while Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, lost to Perdue the same year.

"Republicans always get behind their candidate; we get out to vote, and that's something the other side struggles with a lot," said Ross.

But as they were crossing the streets in a neighborhood in Alpharetta, they spied some Ossoff canvassers nearby — underscoring the massive presence the Democratic front-runner has been able to build in the district with his army of volunteers and paid staff.

Special elections — imperfect predictors?

In some recent political cycles, special elections have been harbingers of things to come, and that's what Democrats hope Tuesday ends up being. In January 2010, Republican Scott Brown campaigned against the health care bill and ended up winning the Massachusetts special Senate election to succeed the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy — foreshadowing major losses for Democrats that fall.

But they're not always perfect predictors, either. Democrat Mark Critz won a special election in Pennsylvania in May 2010, giving his party hope going into the midterms. Democrats, however, would lose 63 House seats that cycle.

But what special elections can be are snapshots in time to gauge how an issue is playing with the electorate. And for Democrats, the Georgia race is an important test of whether their months of marches and protests can translate into real votes at the ballot box.

If Ossoff does win — either on Tuesday or in two months — he'll have a major target on his back from Republicans in 2018. But a victory would still fire up the Democratic grass roots and send a warning shot to already worried Republicans about the midterms, when the president's party typically loses an average of 29 seats. Democrats need 24 seats to take back the House next fall — 23 if Ossoff wins.

However, if all their money and hype fall short, it may be back to the drawing board for a party already perplexed by Hillary Clinton's loss to Trump despite all her money and staff — just like Ossoff has managed to corral.