With an $8 million war chest and army of door-knockers, Jon Ossoff has reaped the rewards of running as a Democrat in a special election billed as the first referendum on President Trump. But if he ekes out a win Tuesday in a historically Republican Georgia congressional district, he could have the disarray on the Right to thank as much as the unprecedented showing of support on the Left.
The Republican field has become increasingly fractured and contentious, while Ossoff quickly consolidated support from Democrats around the country and in Georgia, winning endorsements from would-be rivals and investments from major outside groups.
Voters intent on supporting a Republican will have 11 to choose from. And the candidates, along with GOP super PACs, have spent millions engaging in internecine squabbling that can be dangerous when a runoff is guaranteed only if no candidate garners a majority in the all-party primary.
“They haven’t really seriously thought through the scenario of a mutually-assured-destruction path for Republicans,” said former GOP Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia. “Then you clear the way for 51 percent for Ossoff.”
Some of the Republicans who once expected Democrats to struggle to even get a candidate into the runoff now worry they’ve allowed Ossoff to dictate the terms of the race and build an organizational advantage, while they spent time and money attacking each other. In a nightmare outcome for Republicans, the bruising intra-party conflict and barrage of negative ads could depress GOP turnout and push independents toward Ossoff, enabling him to win the 6th District seat outright.
Many of the Republican front-runners, as well as multiple outside groups backing them, have turned their fire inward. In just the last week, former state Sen. Dan Moody dropped a 30-second spot trashing Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state with high name ID from a trio of statewide bids, as a self-interested politician. Meanwhile, Judson Hill, another former state legislator, released an ad lampooning Handel, Moody, and former Johns Creek Councilman Bob Gray.
In interviews, few of the top candidates entertained the idea that Ossoff could end the race next week, and their campaign strategies are geared toward their own advancement. “I’m not spending any time doing a contrast with Jon. I’m saving that for the runoff,” Gray said.
The Club for Growth, which is backing Gray, ramped up assaults on two Republicans in part of an ongoing $600,000 campaign of ads and mailers. The conservative group, perhaps the race’s most significant perpetrator of Republican-on-Republican attacks, casts Moody and Handel as a “two-headed tax-and-spend monster.”
Left unmentioned in all three spots is Ossoff, who has led every recent public poll of the race, though he is still below 50 percent.
“They’ve spent money, a lot of money, to tear down Karen Handel and Dan Moody, and it certainly appears like the beneficiary of that has been Jon Ossoff,” Georgia GOP strategist Chip Lake said.
To be sure, Ossoff has not emerged unscathed. The Congressional Leadership Fund has spent more than $2 million attacking him on TV, first as an immature, Star Wars-loving college student and later as a Nancy Pelosi-aligned liberal who lied on his résumé and has alleged ties to terrorists (because his company has done work for the Al Jazeera news organization). CLF’s executive director, Corry Bliss, struck a confident tone recently while discussing the primary: “When we get done with Jon Ossoff, he’ll be a footnote in history.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee invested in the district as well, working to boost Republican turnout.
Georgia Republicans said they like their chances much more in a one-on-one matchup with Ossoff, but it’s not clear how easy it will be to unify the base behind one candidate after a bloody primary—especially if that candidate is Handel, who has been bashed on the air most frequently.
In an interview with National Journal, Handel downplayed the idea of low turnout caused by infighting. “People who are supportive of me, they have been even more energized by the negative attacks,” she said, citing her interactions with voters during phone banking and field efforts. “That one TV ad was pretty dark.”
Republican brawling is far from the only advantage boosting Ossoff. This affluent district, situated in the northern Atlanta suburbs, normally backs Republican presidential candidates by double digits. Trump carried it by just 1 point.
“There are problems much deeper than competitive primaries if a Democrat has the potential to win an R+14,” said Andy Roth, the Club for Growth’s vice president of government relations, referring to the district’s Cook Political Report partisanship rating before the 2016 elections.
Early on, Democratic strategists fretted that the multiple candidates who entered the race could divide their vote and prevent them from making the runoff at all.
“That game was won behind the scenes,” said David Mermin, a Democratic pollster who polled for the Ossoff campaign and is now working for independent-expenditure groups on the Democratic side. “That happened very early, and it had to do with Jon’s strong connections with some of the key political players in Georgia.”
Multiple Republican candidates said they were unaware of an attempt by Republicans to narrow the field in order to consolidate support, while the top candidates could all tout big-name endorsements.
By contrast, Ossoff has nearly monopolized support on the Democratic side. Strategists pointed to Ossoff’s early backing from Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson, whom he spent several years working for, and Rep. John Lewis, a beloved figure among Democrats around the country. That, combined with Ossoff’s own fundraising abilities—he entered the race with $250,000 in pledges—was quickly supplemented by support channeled through the progressive blog Daily Kos, which raised more than $1 million for him.
Johnson may have also helped to secure Ossoff’s heavyweight backers. Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, a likely Democratic candidate for governor next year, said she “heard directly” from Johnson about the candidate, calling that “a strong endorsement to have in your pocket.” Abrams also said she was impressed by Ossoff’s campaign savvy and knowledge of the district.
As he gained traction, the field of viable Democratic candidates narrowed. Sally Harrell, a former elected official from the area who some Democratic operatives initially expected to rival Ossoff for institutional support, said she dropped out when she saw Ossoff’s significant fundraising advantage. Asked if she had been encouraged to drop out by Democratic leaders looking to consolidate the field, she said she would prefer to “plead the Fifth.”
Josh McLaurin, a local attorney, also bowed out of the race and endorsed Ossoff—something Daily Kos pointed to as an early signal of Ossoff’s strength. Nathaniel Markowitz, a McLaurin adviser at the time, said a meeting between Ossoff and McLaurin sealed the deal.
“He sat down with Jon and they talked, and he gave me a call afterwards and he said, ‘I really think this guy is the real deal,’” Markowitz said. “Plus, if there are two great candidates that are running, then you risk splitting the vote.”
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