Georgia special election: Democrats bidding to humiliate Donald Trump in historic vote

It is the most expensive such election in history – and it has come down to a knife edge

Andrew Buncombe
Chamblee, Georgia
Monday 19 June 2017 19:14
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Jon Ossoff answers questions on eve of polling day for Georgia congressional election

As Jon Ossoff sprang into a campaign office on the eve of the most closely watched – and costliest – special election in history, there were few clues on the 30-year-old's face that he had been shaking hands and banging on doors all year.

His Republican opponent, Karen Handel, a former state official, has been trying to use the Democrat’s youth and lack of experience, against him. But Mr Ossoff, who once studied at the London School of Economics, hopes it will help him win a congressional contest that is being watched around the world. If he does emerge as the victor, it would be the first time a Democrat has won Georgia's 6th congressional district in four decades.

“Thanks for being here today everyone. The work you’re doing here today is the most important in the campaign,” he told his supporters. “Because, it’s all about turnout. It’s going to come down to the wire.”

He said many people were disenchanted with politics. “There are the people in this room that can restore that faith … Let’s get out the vote like never before,” he said.

The polite and humble former documentary filmmaker has been careful throughout his campaign – situated in the green suburbs north of Atlanta – to avoid being overly critical of Donald Trump. In a race where the most recent polls have him and Ms Handel, 55, separated by just a couple of points, he does not want to do anything to deter any Republicans considering voting for him.

Yet, lots of his supporters are not so cautious. Many of those volunteering for his campaign – and planning to vote for him – said they were inspired to act after the presidential election victory of Mr Trump. For a number of those individuals, and for many across the entire nation, a victory for Mr Ossoff would count as a direct rejection of the New York tycoon and everything he stands for.

Indeed, it has been contributions from Democrats and others across America, that have helped raise more than $23m for Mr Ossoff’s campaign. By the time all the spending on both sides is tallied, reports suggest the total will top an astonishing $50m, a record.

Jon Ossoff: Georgia election will come down to turn out

“I hope it sends a message at a national level. I woke up after the presidential election and found myself in a country I did not recognise,” said Roma Rishi, 36, a volunteer for the campaign.

“I did not realise there was still so much misogyny and racism in the country. I realised I could not simply be a voter. I had to do something.”

Asked by The Independent what message his victory would send around the world, Mr Ossoff said it would show that voters here wanted someone who could break the political gridlock.

“It would send a message that the people of Georgia want a fresh start,” he said.

Mr Ossoff’s task is not inconsiderable. The Republicans have held the district since 1979 and for many years it was the seat of Newt Gingrich, who went on to become Speaker of the House and has more recently emerged as a stalwart supporter of Mr Trump. In the 2012 presidential election, the district went to Mitt Romney by 23 points, but last year, Mr Trump only edged Hillary Clinton by 1.5 per cent.

Ms Handel is fighting to hold on to a seat Republicans have occupied since 1979

The special election was declared after the incumbent congressman, Tom Price, was asked by Mr Trump to become his secretary of Health and Human Services. An open primary was held in April in which Mr Ossoff received 48.1 per cent of the vote, just short of the 50 per cent threshold needed to win outright and avoid the run-off with Mr Handel.

Democrats are throwing everything they can into the race. Special elections earlier this year in Kansas and Montana have already enthused the party's grass roots, and they believe a victory for Mr Ossoff could give them the momentum to flip 24 Republican seats in the 2018 midterms and take control of the House.

“This congressional seat is 1/435th of one house of one of three branches of the federal government. It doesn’t determine control of the House, either. And we know from past experience that even if the Democrats win it, it’s far too early for this one special election to predict the results of the 2018 midterm elections,” said Larry Sabato, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia,

“So why is it important? The Democrats desperately need a victory. They control nothing at the federal level after losing an election they absolutely should have won. It shouldn’t even have been close. So far Democrats have lost all the key special elections since Trump became president – though they have managed to increase their share of the vote just about everywhere."

He added: “If Democrats can’t switch this seat, which is in a highly educated area where Hillary Clinton nearly upset Trump, how are Democrats going to find the 24 seats they need to take control of the House?”

Those on the ground, know things are likely to go down to the wire. With the exception of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, which last week gave Mr Ossoff a seven-point lead, the RealClearPolitics site, which monitors national polls, suggests he has a lead of just or two points.

An insight into the way the vote has so evenly divided people came on a drive through a leafy road, Gramercy Circle, less than a mile from Mr Ossoff’s morning appearance. It seemed that almost every house had a sign on the lawn for either Mr Ossoff or Ms Handel, and they seemed evenly distributed.

One resident who did not not have a sign was 43-year-old Jennifer Lathrop. She said she had not put one up because “feelings are running pretty high” and did not want to do anything to provoke a passer-by.

A music teacher who described herself as being fiscally conservative but more moderate on social issues, Ms Lathrop, who has two children, said she would be voting for Mr Ossoff as she believed he had the best qualities to help people in the district.

Yet she said few people she spoke to were seeing the race through a local prism. “I think people believe it’s a referendum on the national situation,” she said.

She certainly hoped a victory for Ms Ossoff would send a message that people – especially people in an strongly Republican area – did not approve of Mr Trump. She added: “To me, he is a morally repugnant person.”

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