Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to volunteers and supporters on the last night before election day in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Voting Tuesday in the bitterly fought Georgia election to fill a House seat vacated by Tom Price, President Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services, is taking place more than 2,000 miles from California.
Yet Californians are deeply invested in the race, which has become a referendum on the Trump administration and could chart the path for Democrats nationwide to rebuild their power base in one-time GOP strongholds such as Orange County.
More Californians have contributed to the race between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel than donors from any other state, including Georgia. San Francisco has played front and center in campaign attacks. Liberal Hollywood celebs are lending their star power.
And the outcome of the House race — the most expensive in history — may foreshadow even bigger battlegrounds in California.
Georgia’s 6th is a longtime GOP-dominated district in the north Atlanta suburbs. This is a place that Democrats barely bothered to compete in when Price held the seat. It is the district Newt Gingrich hailed from when he orchestrated the Republican revolution in the 1990s.
But Democrats see an opening in this rapidly diversifying region, where Trump won by less than two percentage points.
And Californians, relishing their role in confronting Trump, have dug into their pockets to boost the campaign of Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional staffer who was an unknown even in this district only a few months ago.
Now at the end of a campaign in which some $60 million will have been spent by the candidates and an assortment of ideological and political outside groups, Ossoff is arguably as well known as his Republican opponent. Handel is a former Georgia secretary of state and former executive at the Susan G. Komen for the Cure charity for breast cancer. She played a major role in that organization’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood — and became a favorite of the right along the way.
In April, the cash infusion for Ossoff, the eagerness of Democrats to consolidate around him and widespread voter anxiety in the district over Trump contributed to a surprisingly strong showing in an open primary. Ossoff won 48% of the vote, just two points shy of winning the race outright during the primary. Handel split the conservative vote with a handful of other well-funded Republicans, winning 18%.
Republicans in this district have since rallied around their nominee, making the race a toss-up.
Californians account for more than 11,600 donations to the Ossoff campaign, kicking in over $1 million, according to a search of receipts filed with the Federal Election Commission. That’s more than triple the number of donations made by Georgians. But the checks from Georgia have been bigger, so the sum of in-state contributions edged out the total of cash raised from California.
In a race heavy with symbolism, where Democrats are hoping to foment an electoral backlash against Trump and the GOP is hoping to bring anxious establishment Republicans back home, Handel has repeatedly sought to make an issue out of Ossoff’s California money. The Democrat has raised nearly $5 for every $1 Handel has raised, pushing her to rely heavily on millions of dollars in spending from a handful of outside conservative groups, which have poured money into the race at more than double the rate of outside liberal groups.
One of those groups, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, broadcast an ad shot in San Francisco aimed at unnerving Georgians. It features a diverse cast of actors in dressed in eclectic Bay Area chic cheerfully rooting for Ossoff. Example: “Higher taxes, bigger government, sweet!” declares a man with dreadlocks and an earring. “There is a reason Bay Area liberals have contributed more to Jon Ossoff’s campaign than people of Georgia. He’s one of us,” says a woman with a “Cut the Military Now” button and wacky plaid hat.
That claim, in fact, is false. Fact checkers noted Georgians have actually contributed considerably more to Ossoff than Bay Area folks.
But Ossoff also helped drive the narrative that he was an outsider by choosing to live outside the district. He is a resident of Atlanta, where his girlfriend is finishing medical school. Even Trump himself is attacking the candidate, who grew up in the district, as an outsider.
“Democrat Jon Ossoff, who wants to raise your taxes to the highest level and is weak on crime and security, doesn’t even live in district,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. He did much the same on Monday.
The race has brought no shortage of anxiety to Trump and his team. If unease with Trump and his brand of Republicanism costs the party this seat, it could signal any number of veteran Republicans in swing districts are at risk.
GOP operatives in Orange Country are watching nervously. The demographics in that one-time Republican bastion in many ways resemble those of the Georgia district up for grabs Tuesday. Democrats have even more momentum in Orange County, which voted for Hillary Clinton in November. The four House Republicans representing the county are among the lawmakers most aggressively targeted for defeat by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The committee has moved its West Coast command center, long located in Washington, out to Irvine.