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Georgia’s record-breaking special election will test Trump approval

June 19, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
A special election in Georgia has become the most expensive U.S. House race in history. In a district that's been consistently Republican for decades, Democrats are pinning their hopes and money on a young candidate, Jon Ossoff, who's going up against GOP candidate Karen Handel. Lisa Desjardins talks to Andra Gillespie of Emory University and Greg Bluestein of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s the most expensive race in history to fill a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. And it’s in a district consistently Republican for decades.

Newt Gingrich was the congressman for Georgia’s 6th District for 20 years. It was most recently vacated by Tom Price when he was tapped to be secretary of health and human services.

But Democrats are pinning their hopes and lots of their money on a young candidate.

Lisa Desjardins brings us up to speed.

LISA DESJARDINS: More than $50 million, that’s how much has been spent. The special election between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel in suburban Atlanta has drawn outsized national attention because, in some ways, it hinges on a name not on the ballot.

Divisions over President Trump have Democrats thinking they have a chance.

We break it down now with Andra Gillespie. She’s a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. And Greg Bluestein, a reporter with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and native of Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.

Thank you both for joining us.

I want to start this by looking at the extraordinary numbers involved in this race, the dollar figures. From what we know, as of the reports at the end of May, the Democrat in this race, Jon Ossoff, had brought in $23 million, Republican Karen Handel $4.5 million, but outside groups $25 million.

Let me start with you, Greg. How close is this race, quickly, and why is there so much spending here?

GREG BLUESTEIN, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Yes, this race is neck and neck.

Most public polls show Ossoff within a one- or two- or three-point lead, within the margin of error. You talk to six different analysts down here, you will get six different opinions. So, it really could be either way tomorrow, when we have the final vote — $42 million-plus has now been spent on just ads alone, many of them negative.

So, district residents have been pummeled and metro Atlanta residents at large have been pummeled with ads about this race, which means there is a very slim number of undecided voters here.

LISA DESJARDINS: Andra, what is happening here politically? Is this just the extent of spending everywhere, or is there something different about this race that has brought in so much money?

ANDRA GILLESPIE, Emory University: Well, unlike a midterm election, where you have hundreds of congressional races going on simultaneously, both parties have been able to focus on each individual special race at a time.

And because this was the most competitive of the special elections that have been held this spring, it garnered the most attention. And so campaign spending and campaign fund-raising are in part a signal about how competitive a race is. So, in that respect, it’s not surprising that this race broke records.

LISA DESJARDINS: Unbelievable race. And we have had even another turn of events here in the last week with the congressional shooting that happened outside of Washington that is now entering this race.

And we saw, as you mentioned, the ad war, Greg. The ad war has brought about a new ad in this race. Let’s play a clip of it.

NARRATOR: Now the unhinged left is endorsing and applauding shooting Republicans. When will it stop? It won’t if Jon Ossoff wins on Tuesday.

LISA DESJARDINS: I don’t want to necessarily talk about that ad itself, but this idea, Greg, of whether that shooting could affect this race. We have heard Republicans in Georgia think that it might. And, apparently, the people who made that ad think that it could.

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yes, and we have also had both candidates and their campaigns condemn the ad and call for it to be taken down.

It’s being talked about in the district, but I don’t know how much it will actually influence any votes. As we mentioned earlier, there are so few undecided voters. And this ad is targeting, I think, Karen Handel supporters, obviously, who go to the polls for her, and many of them are already locked in.

Early voting has already exceeded 140,000, so the majority of the voters who will show up, who will end up casting ballots have already cast their ballots. So I’m not sure how much it will change the race, but it certainly is something we’re all talking about down here.

LISA DESJARDINS: Do you think that will affect voting at all, the shooting?

ANDRA GILLESPIE: I think that this type of ad, especially an independent expenditure like this, is a reflection of how parties don’t control certain types of politics as much anymore.

And this shows one of the negative consequences of allowing outside groups to be able to spend money in these types of races. Sometimes, they go off-script and they do things that actually the campaigns themselves would actually reject and find actually more harmful than good.

LISA DESJARDINS: Greg, I saw you nodding about off-script.

Well, someone who likes to go off-script, of course, is President Trump. He actually has participated in this race, in fact tweeting just today in support of Republican Karen Handel. That’s really been the sort of subtext with this entire race.

How much do you think President Trump is a factor? Is this a test of President Trump’s approval right now?

GREG BLUESTEIN: He is no doubt — undoubtedly a factor.

And every time some local candidates or operatives try to say that he’s not, we just point to the fact that he has — not only has he sent a string of tweets out, but he’s recorded robo-calls, he’s come down and stumped with Karen Handel. So has Vice President Mike Pence.

So he is without a doubt a major factor in this race. And really the only reason why Democrats really think they can win this is because of the narrow margin that he won the district by in November.

LISA DESJARDINS: And let’s talk about that. We are going to show some more numbers about that.

It’s amazing to me. Look at this. Mitt Romney won this district by 23 points and, as you say, President Trump just by one.

Andra, I want to ask you. We have these two candidates who represent somewhat of a conservative view and a liberal view, but lately they have moved toward the middle. Who are they trying to appeal to? Who will decide this race?

ANDRA GILLESPIE: In particular, both campaigns have tried to reach out to suburban women voters, so particularly college-educated white women.

We have seen super PACs in support of Karen Handel mention that she would be the only woman in Georgia’s congressional delegation. And we have seen Jon Ossoff play the Planned Parenthood card, noting that when Karen Handel was an executive at the Susan G. Komen Foundation, she allegedly helped get Planned Parenthood defunded to help fit a certain political agenda.

And so if there is some moderate-leaning even Republican women who might be uncomfortable with playing abortion politics with, say, breast cancer, that might be a way to demobilize that constituency and help his cause.

LISA DESJARDINS: It is one heck of a race, guys.

Andra Gillespie and Greg Bluestein, I’m jealous I’m not down there, but thank you for joining us.

GREG BLUESTEIN: Thank you.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Thank you.

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