Republicans and Democrats have Georgia's 6th on their mind

The post election dominoes of President Donald Trumps administration picks and a California Democratic appointment have created five openings in the U.S. House of Representatives, including in the 6th Congressional District in suburban Atlanta. Eighteen candidates, including the ones seen in this compilation of campaign advertisements, are running in a special election on Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Democrats believe they have a shot, based on Trumps underperformance and the early fundraising success of Jon Ossoff. (AP Photo/Alex Sanz)

While the rest of the nation was able to breathe a sight of relief after the drawn out, contentious 2016 general election, Georgia's 6th District was thrown back in the thick of an all-out national political brawl to fill the seat of former GOP congressman turned Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary, Tom Price.

On Tuesday, voters in Georgia's 6th will choose between a slate of 18 candidates, with a field of 11 Republican candidates vying against the Democratic front-runner Jon Ossoff. If neither of the candidates is able to secure 50 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off election on June 20 between the top two candidates.

The national parties have descended on the 6th District with loads of cash and get out the vote efforts. Donald Trump won the dictrict with less than 2 percent of the vote, leaving the door wide open for Democrats to snatch up a congressional seat that has been in Republican hands since 1979.

Last week's special election to fill the Kansas 4th District seat vacated by Mike Pompeo, now director of the Central Intelligence Agency, gave some Republicans the jitters going into the incredibly close race in Georgia. After a last-minute push by the Republican National Committee, GOP candidate Ron Estes won the seat by a slim 7 percent in a district that has traditionally elected Republicans with double-digit margins.

In response to the close race and high stakes in Georgia, outside groups on the left and right have poured money into an election they believe will be a proving ground for their party's strength nationally. According to the campaign finance watchdogs at the Center for Responsive Politics, Ossoff has raised upwards of $8.2 million in the three months he has been in the campaign with the overwhelming majority of the cash, 95 percent, has come from outside the district.

The Republicans have also stuffed their candidates' war chests, with the Congressional Leadership Fund and National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) topping the list of big donors, spending more than $5.4 million on the special election.

Republicans have also gotten a bit of outside help from President Donald Trump who has avoided directly backing one of the 11 GOP candidates, has sent out a total of six tweets in the last week attacking Ossoff as a would-be "disaster in Congress" and "super Liberal." Trump also recorded a robo-call for the Georgia Republican Party asking voters to "stop Jon Ossoff."

On top of the outside cash for a candidate who ironically does not live in the 6th District, Democrats are also mobilizing star power. Hollywood A-listers have pitched in cash and other kinds of campaign support to "#FlipThe6th."

The fight for the 6th has become a "proxy war" between the national Democratic and Republican parties, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) state politics reporter Greg Bluestein who has been covering the special election form ground-zero.

Voters in the 6th are being "inundated" with advertising from all sides, Bluestein said. "With all the ads out there, you can't turn on your TV, or log on to your computer, or listen to radio in your car without hearing some sort of ad from one of the 18 candidates or the outside groups that are pouring millions and millions of dollars into this race."

The plus side of that national focus, he said, is that there are very few people in the district who can claim that they haven't heard about this race.

The big question, though, is whether all of that national attention and cash translates into increased voter turnout, which tends to be particularly low during special elections. "Part of Ossoff's campaign is to try to change the electorate," Bluestein noted. If Ossoff's strategy to mobilize new Democratic voters is not successful, Republicans can expect a clean victory in line with Price's 23 point lead over his Democratic opponent this past November.

Many analysts have characterized this special election as a referendum on the Trump presidency, but for Michael Barone, political strategist at the American Enterprise Institute, today's vote will be a "test" for both Republicans and Democrats.

"This is a test of whether or not Democrats can [flip] those anti-Trump votes into Democratic votes for Congress," Barone advised.

For Republicans, the district represents a challenge in winning over particular groups of voters that have become increasingly elusive.

Georgia's 6th District, which includes Atlanta's northern suburbs, is more educated and more affluent than the rest of the state. Those are the voters that tended to cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016, but also groups that have been drifting away from the GOP in recent years. In that sense, Barone noted, the particular makeup of the 6th District makes the election a test for Republicans, whether they can hold a seat where the population is highly educated and more affluent.

The other challenge for Democrats, is the 50 percent threshold that Ossoff has to meet in order to win the seat. The latest polls show Ossoff with an average of 42 percent of the vote.

"If [Ossoff] runs where the polling is, it's not at all clear that he'll win the runoff in June," Barone said. "It would remain to be seen whether or not he can move up ... to over 50 percent. It's not at all clear that he can."

Still, Republicans have a reason to be nervous in a scattered field of 11 candidates who have sometimes spent more time and money fighting one another than their Democratic challenger.

GOP strategist and political analyst Paris Dennard said that the wide field of Republican candidates may have done the party a disservice in today's election.

"Candidly speaking, there should have been a coalescing behind one or two candidates for something this important," he said. "There is no reason, in an election this critical and with all the things going on in D.C., when you need every majority you can get, why 11 candidate stayed in the race."

But if Ossoff is unable to secure 50 percent of the vote tonight, the GOP could have an advantage seeing the party coalesce around just one candidate. If Ossoff is able to secure 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday night, Dennard warned against reading too much into the victory.

"If the Democrats happen to win the seat in Georgia, yes, it will be a win. But can you take that and somehow indicate this is the mood for the whole nation or its sentiments about the president? No," Dennard said, adding that that despite making the election a national focus, it is still fundamentally about the people of one congressional district.

After the devastating election loss in 2016 and a minority in the House, the Senate and in state houses around the country, Dennard argued that Democratic Party is "in shambles" and looking for a win. "I think Democrats are thirsty for a win," he continued, "I think they need and are looking for something to reinvigorate their party. ... so they are looking at the 30-year old Ossoff as the savior of the Democratic Party. "

With the heavy campaigning and major cash outlays, a loss for either party could be a big embarrassment. Democrats are already portraying a Republican loss as a harbinger of potentially big electoral gains for their party in the 2018 midterm elections. For Republicans, a win in Georgia could be a sign that they may keep their congressional majority for another session.

"It has kind of become Rorschach test," Bluestein explained. Depending on party affiliation, people look at Georgia's 6th District race and come away with different meanings.

Historically, special elections have been inconsistent indicators of how the country will vote during the midterms. A lot can happen between now and November 2018 and there are still another two must-watch special elections on the horizon.

In June, voters in South Carolina's 5th District will head to the polls to fill the seat vacated by Trump's budget director Mick Mulvaney, a seat that has only been held by a Republican since 2010. Montana will also hold a special election in June to fill the seat vacated by Ryan Zinke, the new Secretary of the Interior. Montana's at-large congressional district has been in Republican hands for the past two decades.

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