Republicans Worry Infighting Could Boost Ossoff to Victory in Georgia

The 6th District race could end at Tuesday’s all-party special-election primary if the Democrat wins a majority of the vote.

Georgia Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to volunteers in his Cobb County campaign office on March 11.
AP Photo/Bill Barrow
Ally Mutnick and Colin Diersing
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Ally Mutnick and Colin Diersing
April 13, 2017, 8 p.m.

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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