Democrats are itching for a comeback after President Donald Trump’s stunning upset victory in November, and they’re eyeing to make it happen in a ruby-red district in Georgia.
Tom Price’s confirmation as secretary of health and human services left open a seat in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, a fairly wealthy, well-educated suburb north of Atlanta. It’s a solidly Republican district where Price consistently won re-election without breaking a sweat. But Trump won the district by just one point in November, giving Democrats a glimmer of hope that they can turn the district blue in an April special election to replace Price.
Despite their optimism, nonpartisan observers and, of course, Republicans, are skeptical that Democrats have a real shot at flipping the district. While the race may turn out closer than is typical for the district, experts on Georgia state politics suggest Trump’s slim margin was an anomaly and that the seat will remain solidly Republican.
Daniel Franklin, an associate professor at Georgia State University, argued that while Trump won by a razor-thin margin, Price’s margin of victory is more representative of the number of Republicans in the district.
“There is going to be an increase in support and excitement for Democratic candidates wherever you are because of Trump, but I just don’t think it’s going to be enough, not in this district,” he told TPM. “If it were a marginal district, yes. But this is not what we would define as a marginal district.”
The leader of a tri-county task force focused on winning the special election for Democrats, Michael Owens, told TPM that Democrats are focused on turning out their base and hoping that enthusiasm among Republicans will be low.
Owens, who also chairs the Democratic Party in Cobb County, thinks Democrats have a good shot to take Price’s old seat because the district’s voters “rejected” Trump. He added that he’s seen a lot of enthusiasm among liberals in the area since Trump’s election.
Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist who served as Barack Obama’s southern regional director in 2012 and has worked for several Georgia Democrats, noted that Cobb County, part of which lies within the 6th District’s boundaries, went to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election even though the county voted for Romney in 2012.
He told TPM that even though Price won re-election in 2016 by 23 points, he believes that if Price “was running in this climate, I think it would be a different scenario.”
“I have not seen this much momentum on the ground in Georgia since 2012,” he told TPM of liberals’ enthusiasm there.
Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old former staffer for Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) who boasts endorsements from Johnson and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), appears to be leading a pack of five Democrats in the race. He’s earned a lot of attention for raising nearly $2 million for his campaign so far.
Keenan Pontoni, Ossoff’s campaign manager, told TPM that he has seen a lot of excitement about the race and for Ossoff’s campaign in the district. He said that Trump’s small margin of victory there shows that residents of the district will not necessarily vote along party lines, and that the subject of Trump has come up on the campaign trail.
“Jon will work with anyone, but a lot of Georgians have concern that Trump’s approach is embarrassing and dangerous. And Jon shares those concerns,” Pontoni said. “And he is willing to stand up to Trump as needed to make sure Georgians are safe and Georgians are prosperous.”
Ron Slotin, a former state senator and another prominent Democrat in the race, and his political director, Chris Vaughn, emphasized Slotin’s track record in office in a phone interview with TPM. Vaughn also made a point to note that Slotin resides in the district, which he said not all the candidates in the race currently do. While Vaughn would not name names, it was an apparent reference to Ossoff.
“This district isn’t the type of district that I think will take to candidates who they may perceive may be carpetbaggers or may just have flown in just to run for Congress,” Vaughn told TPM.
Pontoni, Ossoff’s campaign manager, said that Ossoff grew up in the district and recently moved just outside it to accommodate his girlfriend’s commute to Emory University’s medical school.
It’s unlikely that carpetbagging charges will be the thing to sink Democrats’ chances, though. Trump’s poor performance in the district has buoyed their hopes for the special election, but Georgia political experts say the Democratic candidates will still run up against the realities of running in a historically Republican district.
Trey Hood, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, noted that special elections typically see low turnout, a scenario that typically favors Republicans.
“This is definitely still a Republican-leaning district. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” he said. “Does it mean that there’s no way a Democrat could win the special election? No. It’s sort of the Republican Party’s to lose, I’d say.”
The special election will function as a jungle primary, meaning that if no candidate nets at least 50 percent of the vote on April 18, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will move on to a June runoff.
Chip Lake, a Republican strategist in Georgia, told TPM that he thinks the race will be more competitive this time around. But he also believes Democrats may have had a better chance had they rallied behind a different candidate, describing Ossoff as a “young, brash, aggressive, progressive liberal.”
“And this is not a district that is compatible with those qualities,” he argued, adding that he thinks Democrats would have had a better chance with a more “moderate,” pro-business candidate.
The Republican side of the race, for its part, is a very crowded field. Karen Handel, a former secretary of state, has perhaps the most name recognition among the 11 GOP candidates. Two former state senators are running, Judson Hill and Dan Moody, as well as former Johns Creek city council member Bob Gray.
Bruce LeVell embraces Donald Trump on stage during his second campaign visit to Georgia in November, 2015.
Bruce LeVell, who led Trump’s National Diversity Coalition, has also thrown his hat into the ring. In a phone interview with TPM, he was confident that he could win the race as the “Trump candidate,” saying he was “not at all” concerned about the President’s slim margin in the district.
LeVell said that he believes people are growing more confident in Trump, and that he’s sure the President’s approval rating will improve even further after his joint address to Congress.
“I am the Trump candidate. Period. There is no other,” he told TPM. “There is only one Bruce LeVell. There is no one else.”
Pictured above: Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff, left, and Ron Slotin, right.
Correction: This post originally misidentified Emory University as Emory College. We regret the error.