MARIETTA, Ga. — Republicans in Georgia’s conservative 6th district don’t agree which of their party’s 11 candidates should represent the area in Congress. They’re united on one thing: it won’t be the Democrat trying for a massive upset fueled by anti-Trump sentiment and millions of dollars from around the country.
“I don’t care what party you’re from,” said Marty Aftewicz, a 66-year-old Republican voter from Marietta. “If the money’s coming from outside the district, it’s dirty.”
Democrats in the area, though, see the flood of donations as a sign they’re not alone in opposing the president.
“It gives me some hope, even though Georgia is a heavily red state,” said Barbara Oakley, a 65-year-old retired pharmacist. “I think Democrats got surprised by Trump in November and they’re ready to work.”
Approaching Tuesday’s primary, Republicans are trying to prevent victory by a previously unknown former congressional staffer, 30-year-old Jon Ossoff. His bid to replace Health Secretary Tom Price in Congress carries implications beyond the northern suburbs of Atlanta as both major parties position themselves for the 2018 midterm elections.
Five Democrats will appear on the ballot, but Ossoff is considered the greatest threat to the GOP. Two independent candidates also are running.
The 18-candidate “jungle primary” comes a week after Republicans sweated out a single-digit special congressional victory in Kansas. Republican winner Ron Estes had previously coasted to easy statewide victories as state treasurer, but won a House seat based in Wichita by just 7 percentage points, with little outside investment from national Democrats.
In Georgia, by contrast, both parties have dispatched paid field staffers, and a Republican political action committee backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan has spent more than $2 million pounding Ossoff. President Donald Trump underperformed other Republicans in the suburban district, making it a soft target for Democrats.
“Jon is being bankrolled by the most extreme liberals,” said Republican candidate Karen Handel, referring to Ossoff’s fundraising haul that exceeds $8 million, most of it from outside the district. “No one is naive enough to think that he will not be beholden to those who are bankrolling him.”
The message sank in for Aftewicz, who cast an early ballot for Republican candidate Dan Moody. Unprompted, Aftewicz echoed the barrage of campaign ads attempting to tie Ossoff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
“Anyone raising that much outside money can’t represent me,” Aftewicz said.
For his part, Ossoff pledges to be an “independent voice” in Congress, and he defends his campaign as a grassroots success powered by small and medium donors.
Republicans essentially concede Ossoff will lead the voting Tuesday. That leaves 11 Republican candidates hoping the investigative filmmaker fails to reach a majority. If he doesn’t, Ossoff and the top GOP vote-getter would meet in a June 20 runoff.
The Republican leaders appear to be Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state; technology executive Bob Gray; and two former state senators, Moody and Judson Hill — all of whom national Republicans say could defeat Ossoff in a second round.
From the outset, Trump has loomed large in the contest.
Ossoff has used the anti-Trump windfall to blanket the expensive television market with advertising that tries to stoke liberal angst but also woo disaffected Republicans in a district Trump barely won in November.
Oakley, who cast an early ballot for Ossoff, moved to Georgia about six years ago and often feels “like a fish out of water” as a staunch Democrat in the red state. She considers her vote a small indicator of her disapproval toward Trump.
“The environment, women’s rights, even the forest service are going to be affected by Trump’s actions,” Oakley said. “Pretty much everything he’s done worries me.”
Ossoff pledges to fight Trump when he “embarrasses” the country. But he tells voters in one ad, “I’ll work with anybody in Washington who respects your tax dollars.”
For her part, Handel said in a recent interview that she will work with Trump “on issues where we agree, but my job is to be a voice for people of the 6th district.”
That’s a far cry from Gray, the businessman who calls himself a “willing partner” for the president. Gray offered particular praise for Trump’s recent address to a joint session of Congress. “There was not a single proposal in that speech that I don’t agree with,” Gray told The Associated Press.
Tom Goodwin, a business owner from Roswell, voted early for Hill on Thursday and said the large number of candidates in the race made him feel “my vote really matters.”
“I’m a little overwhelmed by how much people are talking about this race,” Goodwin, 52, said. “I think it’s a sign of how divided our country is right now.”