Recognizing the high stakes in an upcoming special House election in suburban Atlanta, the GOP-aligned super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund is spending an additional $1.1 million in television ads against the Democratic front-runner, Jon Ossoff. After its first spot showed footage of a college-aged Ossoff dressed up as Han Solo to poke at his immaturity, the new ad campaign is treading on more familiar ground, connecting the 30-year-old Democrat to unpopular House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Here’s what’s behind the decision: Ossoff alone is outspending his Republican opposition significantly in the runup to the April 18 primary to replace Rep. Tom Price, who is now Health and Human Services secretary. For all the attention that Republicans received for their two ads highlighting Ossoff’s college hijinks, they only spent about $549,000 over four weeks for the spots—a pittance in a major market like Atlanta. The bulk of the $2.2 million that the Congressional Leadership Fund has reserved in the race will now be focused on different lines of attack. By contrast, Ossoff has already spent over $1.8 million on ads introducing himself to the district’s voters; his ads have aired more than six times as often as the GOP super PAC’s spots on Atlanta-area television.
The flurry of new GOP spending comes as Ossoff is gaining ground in polls, and is all but guaranteed one of the two spots in the June 20 runoff. According to new polling commissioned by CLF, he’s leading with 37 percent of the vote on the crowded all-party ballot and his favorability rating is at a respectable 41/30 level. That’s not a bad place to be for a Democrat in this conservative district, and it surpasses President Trump’s plus-6 net favorability rating in the same survey. On the flip side, being seen as a Democratic Party lackey in this traditionally conservative district would be a huge problem. Pelosi’s net favorability, according to this GOP survey, is a dismal 25/66, so it’s no coincidence that she’s the star of the group’s latest advertising blitz.
Congressional Leadership Fund executive director Corry Bliss said the goal of the latest ad is to raise questions about Ossoff’s credibility, with the latest spot pivoting from his personal background to his ideology. “Jon Ossoff tried to fool you by inflating his resume. Now, he’s using dishonest ads to hide his liberal values,” the ad begins. “The truth is Nancy Pelosi’s friends are bankrolling Ossoff’s campaign because Ossoff will rubber-stamp her liberal agenda.” The ad hits him for supporting higher taxes and more regulations—Democratic kryptonite in this business-friendly district.
For its part, Ossoff’s campaign has cultivated close ties to the progressive netroots—so excited about the prospect of winning a red-district race that they’ve poured millions into his campaign—while portraying him publicly as a problem-solving independent with bipartisan appeal.
CLF leaders are confident that once Ossoff’s partisan ties catch up to him, his approval ratings will decline. They believe his image is artificially high, thanks to an effective ad campaign portraying him as a fresh-faced outsider. He never mentions his party affiliation in his advertisements—for obvious reasons in a district that hasn’t elected a Democrat in over four decades. The latest advertisement is a reminder why congressional Republicans have coasted to reelection for many years.
This special election is particularly consequential because it’s being fought in a Democratic-trending suburban district—at a time when Democratic anger against Trump is high and Republican divisions over health care are deep. The district, nestled in upscale Fulton and Cobb counties, is filled with affluent Republicans who are turned off by Trump’s protectionist rhetoric and anti-immigration zeal. Trump only carried the district by 2 points in 2016, a 20-point GOP dropoff from Mitt Romney’s winning margin four years earlier.
Ossoff has gained momentum by melding an anti-Trump message with examples that he’s a bipartisan problem solver. For Democrats to win in seats like this, they need to thread the needle of energizing their angry base while convincing voters that they’re not liberal rubber stamps. Republicans are now aggressively—and perhaps, a bit belatedly—working to undermine that latter perception.
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