Against the Grain

Exclusive: Republicans Increase Spending to Save Tom Price’s Seat

The Republican leadership-backed PAC is using a time-tested strategy in hopes of undermining Jon Ossoff’s surging campaign.

In this photo taken March 11, 2017, Georgia Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to volunteers in his Cobb County campaign office. Ossoff is trying for an upset in a Republican-leaning district outside Atlanta. The primary is April 18 with a likely runoff on June 20. Republicans have begun to attack Ossoff, a move the candidates says "shows we can win."
AP Photo/Bill Barrow
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
March 23, 2017, 6:11 p.m.

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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