The emerging view among many Democrats is that President Trump is so unpopular, even in many GOP-friendly areas, that their candidates simply need to run against the White House to win back control of Congress. As long as the party promotes charismatic, telegenic recruits, the thinking goes, their ideology won’t matter a whit. Numerous outside groups are popping up, declaring themselves part of the “resistance” against the White House. These partisans argue that GOP obstruction under President Obama helped Republicans win control of the House, Senate, and presidency. Now Democrats feel they can use similarly aggressive tactics and do the same.
The emerging view in Republican circles is that partisan loyalty is strong enough that GOP candidates will be able to win in states and districts where the party holds a numerical advantage. They point to the results of last year’s presidential election, in which congressional Republicans were able to distinguish their own brand from Trump’s blustery populism. They argue that the Democratic Party is so dominated by its left wing that even anti-Trump Republicans will continue to vote for their party’s congressional candidates, so long as they run on a traditional conservative agenda.
These two arguments will collide in an upcoming special election in suburban Atlanta for the seat of just-confirmed Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price—the first congressional election during Trump’s presidency. A lengthy roster of Republicans and Democrats are vying to win a once-solidly Republican district which has become highly competitive in the age of Trump. Nestled in upscale Fulton and Cobb counties, the district is filled with affluent Republicans working for Fortune 500 companies like Home Depot and Coca Cola. Trump carried the district by only 2 points in 2016, a 20-point drop-off from Mitt Romney’s winning margin four years earlier.
On paper, this election should be a golden opportunity for Democrats to make political inroads. The district is filled with the type of college-educated voters who have gravitated away from Trump—including independents who don’t have strong partisan loyalties but tend to vote Republican. Eleven Republicans will be fighting against each other on an all-party primary ballot, making it likely the eventual GOP standard-bearer will be wounded heading into an expected runoff. Trump’s presidency has gotten off to a rocky start, giving any Democrat plenty of material to work with.
But the early Democratic favorite in the race is about as awkward a fit for this particular district as Democrats could find. Jon Ossoff, a self-described investigative filmmaker, is a 30-year-old former national security staffer for liberal Rep. Hank Johnson. His candidacy has been endorsed by Rep. John Lewis and championed by the liberal Daily Kos website, which has helped him raise nearly $1 million for his campaign—a remarkable sum for an obscure candidate in an off-year House election. He’s facing another Democrat, former state Sen. Ron Slotin, whose more-moderate credentials are passé at a time when his party is looking for confrontational voices.
Ossoff fills the confrontational role to a tee. In case his campaign message wasn’t clear, his website is emblazoned with the headline: “Georgia: Stand Up To Trump.” Making the race about Trump is helping him raise his profile and bringing in loads of campaign cash. But money isn’t a substitute for a message that can win over Republicans who will find Ossoff’s down-the-line liberal views as problematic as Trump’s populism. Democratic activists may be energized by Ossoff’s broadsides against the president, but they will end up disappointed if he doesn’t meld them with a centrist message designed to attract disaffected Republicans.
Republicans are also poised to test how deep partisanship runs, even among conservative voters who aren’t thrilled with Trump. A few of the 11 Republicans who filed to run are latching onto Trump’s coattails, most prominently Trump campaign surrogate Bruce LeVell. But most of the candidates are conventional Republicans who have long been involved in Georgia politics. The best-known Republican in the race, former Secretary of State Karen Handel, was an unsuccessful gubernatorial and congressional candidate. State Sen. Judson Hill, the first candidate to enter the race, has a political base in Cobb County and is a formidable fundraiser. Former state Sen. Dan Moody is close to former Gov. Sonny Perdue, and has enough personal wealth to finance his campaign.
If Democrats can even run competitively in this district, it would be a sign that an unadulterated anti-Trump message can pay dividends. But if the next Republican nominee performs like Price—who never won less than 62 percent of the vote in his seven campaigns—it will send a signal that simply being the opposition isn’t enough to win back control of Congress.
“If you have an old white guy who’s hard right-wing, pro-Trump, anti-Muslim, and anti-gay marriage running against a woman who comes across like Michelle Nunn, that’s the dynamic that could be a problem for us,” said one GOP strategist tracking the race. “But you’re not going to have that dynamic.”
CORRECTION: Ossoff’s campaign spokesman said Ossoff voted for Hillary Clinton in Georgia’s 2016 presidential primary. This story originally wrote he backed Bernie Sanders.