Pundits and the national media have framed the upcoming runoff in the special U.S. House race in Georgia as a referendum on President Donald Trump. But the candidates themselves don’t spend much time praising or attacking the President, and they have been silent on most of the Trump news items du jour.
Because Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, located in the suburbs of Atlanta, only voted for Trump by a one-point margin in November, the race is seen as Democrats’ best chance to flip a congressional seat before the 2018 midterm elections. Both Republicans and Democrats have poured record-shattering sums of money into the closely-watched race.
Under that national spotlight, Democrat Jon Ossoff and, albiet to a lesser extent, Republican Karen Handel have avoided talking Trump during the campaign. So it’s an open question how often the President and national issues will be raised when they debate each other for the first time on television Tuesday night.
“Every federal special election since the beginning of time has a federal component to it. This race has a federal component on steroids,” Chip Lake, a longtime Republican strategist in Georgia, told TPM. “And so there’s no real reason I don’t think for either candidate to go out of their way to mention the President because that narrative and that dynamic is already well-developed.”
Handel welcomed Trump for an April fundraiser, and the President sent a fundraising email on her behalf. Handel also praised Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord and said his firing of former FBI director James Comey was “probably overdue.” But she has not incorporated the President into her campaign messaging with the kind of zeal that Greg Gianforte, the Montana Republican who adopted Trump’s “drain the swamp” campaign message and aggressive attitude toward reporters for his successful bid for an at-large House seat last month, did.
Ossoff, for his part, has pulled back from the anti-Trump energy that characterized the launch of his campaign. He ran ads explicitly pitching himself as a check on Trump when he first jumped into the race, but the Ossoff campaign has since focused its message and ads on local issues, painting the Democratic candidate as someone who will work across the aisle to bring jobs to Georgia.
Political strategists in the Peach State say it’s not surprising that Ossoff has focused on issues other than the ones plaguing Trump’s young presidency, arguing that news reports offer plenty of reminders for district voters about Trump’s time in office.
“He’s actually made a smart pivot to ensure that his ads tell the people in the sixth district what he’s for and what he’ll do when he’s in Washington as their member of Congress,” Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist who has worked for several Georgia lawmakers, told TPM.
Johnson said that Ossoff’s focus on local issues also helps him appeal to the “disaffected Republicans that live in the district.”
Jesse Ferguson, a former campaign aide to Hillary Clinton, said that it makes sense for a candidate new to voters like Ossoff to “introduce yourself and let voters know who you are and who you stand for, before you can credibly critique the Republican President and his candidate.”
As Ferguson noted, Ossoff hasn’t managed to avoid Trump completely during his campaign. He issued a statement last week condemning the President’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord, followed up by a press email calling out Handel for not immediately publicizing her view on the consequential move. But the campaign doesn’t often try to nail down Handel’s position on national issues, instead zeroing in on her history in Georgia and her time at the Susan G. Komen foundation, where she pushed to stop funding Planned Parenthood.
And when asked about Trump during interviews with the national media, Ossoff often demurs. CNN host Chris Cuomo asked Ossoff during an interview last week if he felt like he was running against Handel or against Trump.
“I prefer to think about what I’m running for,” Ossoff replied. “And what I’m running for is greater accountability in Washington, the ability to work across the aisle to get things done to develop metro Atlanta’s regional economy so we can become an economic powerhouse. I think we have too much running against things in this country. We need to be finding common ground, finding areas to work together.”
Ossoff also avoided talking about Trump on the occasion of the April 18 special election, when he fell just short of winning the race outright and secured the top spot in the June 20 runoff against Handel.
“This race is about local economic issues here and values that unite people in the community in Georgia before it’s about the national political circus,” he said at the time when asked if he thought the race was a referendum on Trump. “Everyone’s looking for national implications, but all politics is local.”
He shies away from mentioning the President on his own at campaign events, too, addressing Trump only when faced with a question from a supporter or member of the media, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Lake, the Georgia Republican strategist, told TPM that it makes sense for Ossoff to let Trump’s actions speak for themselves.
“If you’re Jon Ossoff, you’re already getting the benefit of being anti-Trump,” Lake said, adding that it makes sense for Ossoff to “reap the benefits but not have to make it a defining theme of your campaign so that you don’t alienate people that you don’t need to alienate.”
Lake said Handel’s approach to her party’s standard-bearer also was fitting, since “the only reason that this race is competitive is because Donald Trump is President of the United States.” Handel is slated to welcome Vice President Mike Pence to the state before the runoff, which Lake believes is a smart move that could help rally the Republican base in the area.
For her part, Handel has tried to tie Ossoff to national Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and outside liberal groups. Her campaign has also relentlessly attacked Ossoff’s resume, arguing that he inflated his credentials as a congressional staffer.
Sacha Haworth, Ossoff’s communications director, told TPM that the campaign has not changed its approach to Trump (Handel’s campaign did not respond to TPM’s interview requests for this story). She did say that the campaign has focused on local issues going into the June 20 runoff, however.
“This race is and should be about local issues, and that’s what Jon is talking about every day,” Haworth told TPM.
Ossoff and Handel are scheduled to face off in the runoff’s first debate Tuesday night on Atlanta TV station WSB. It’s unclear whether the Democratic candidate will make his opponent answer for her appearance with the President: Haworth said Ossoff plans to charge that Handel “has put her own personal agenda ahead of what’s best for the people that she works for, whether it’s as an elected official, secretary of state, or when she was working on the board at Susan G. Komen.”
TPM composite by Christine Frapech.