ALPHARETTA, Ga. –The garden room at Rivermont Golf and Country Club brims with Republican donors and activists, but Michael Fitzgerald wants to talk about Democrats.
“Shock therapy,” he calls it.
The 6th Congressional District chairman for Georgia Republicans, Fitzgerald wants to steel party faithful for a special House election to choose a successor to Tom Price, President Donald Trump’s new health secretary. Fitzgerald identifies the threat as Democratic hopeful Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide trying to turn anti-Trump fervour into an upset that would embolden Democrats nationally and shake Republicans ahead of 2018 midterm elections.
“It oughta be a sure thing for us,” Fitzgerald says, before reminding the GOP assembly that Trump barely edged Democrat Hillary Clinton in the district.
Rather than the usual Republican romp, Trump finished 14 percentage points behind the showing by then-Rep. Price and well short of what previous GOP presidential nominees have drawn from an affluent electorate in metro Atlanta’s northern suburbs.
That, Fitzgerald reasons, gives Ossoff hope –along with a deluge of campaign cash and a stable of volunteers ahead of an April 18 primary. Fitzgerald sneers at the “far left-wing” activism, but concludes: “That’s what we’re up against, folks.”
Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker who once worked for Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Atlanta, embraces his role as the nation’s first candidate to personify the Trump opposition movement, even as he tries to localize the race as being about more than the president.
“Something is happening here, and we are building momentum that will get us over the top,” Ossoff says. “It’s about this community making a statement about what we stand for. And like it or not, the eyes of the country are on us.”
Democratic and Republican leaders handicap the race as the most competitive of five upcoming House special elections, and a GOP political action committee already has committed more than $1 million to defeating Ossoff. Republicans hold a 237-193 majority (241-194 before the vacancies).
The Georgia contest features 18 candidates on one primary ballot. If no one commands a majority, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to a June 20 runoff. Among Democrats, Ossoff has the only full-scale campaign operation, while a gaggle of well-known Republicans scramble for the conservative vote in a district that elected former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Johnny Isakson, now a U.S. senator, before sending Price to Washington for 12 years
Just weeks ago, Ossoff said he wanted a runoff spot. Now, he tells The Associated Press, “the goal is to win outright” in round one.
To do either, the Georgia native must corral support beyond the district’s most conservative core. That requires maximizing liberal turnout. But it also means wooing disaffected Republicans like David Bishop, a retiree who says he voted reluctantly for Clinton in November, or even Trump supporters such as Jon Shibley, an entrepreneur who explains he backed the president to support an outsider, not out of Republican loyalty.
Bishop, a 78-year-old who lives in Johns Creek, Georgia, recently attended one of Ossoff’s small-group house parties out of curiosity. He came away supporting the young Democrat.
“The old group that’s up there now on both sides, they have the president they have because they got out of touch,” Bishop says, arguing Republicans have gone too far right, while Democrats have ignored the working class.
Ossoff, Bishop says, is “calm, intellectually sharp, thoughtful” and in control of his “moral compass.”
Shibley, a Roswell, Georgia, resident who once ran the Lenox Financial mortgage firm, professes a desire for politicians “who understand a profit-and-loss sheet” and aren’t predictably partisan.
“I’m mostly conservative, but I’m not a default Republican,” the 49-year-old says, adding that he blames establishment figures like Price for the 2008 financial collapse. “So, sure,” Shibley adds, “I’ll give Ossoff a look.”
Trying for a broad coalition, Ossoff vows in a television ad to fight Trump when he “embarrasses our country,” but the candidate also insists he “respects all voters” beyond those animated by liberal bromides.
He opposes GOP health care plans, but says he wants to “fix what’s wrong” with the Affordable Care Act; he tries to localize Republicans’ proposal by highlighting a provision he says would take money from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, located in Atlanta. Ossoff promises to focus on nuts-and-bolts congressional tasks like “connecting veterans with the VA, connecting small businesses with the SBA.”
National Democrats’ House campaign arm has assigned nine paid staffers to Georgia. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has convened focus groups in the district, some aimed at voters 45 and younger, others trying to understand voters 55 and older who supported Republican Mitt Romney for president in 2012 but backed Clinton over Trump.
Party aides credit both groups for helping Clinton’s strong showing against Trump in the Georgia district, and the research could prove fruitful for Democrats nationally in 2018 even if Ossoff loses.
On television airwaves, Republicans frame Ossoff as an unqualified, unserious liberal.
As part of its million-dollar ad campaign, House Republicans’ Congressional Leadership Fund PAC mocks Ossoff with images of him dressed as the “Star Wars” character Han Solo while he was a Georgetown University student. Another ad from Republican candidate Karen Handel blasts “Nancy Pelosi’s hand-picked candidate,” tying Ossoff to the House Democratic leader from San Francisco.
Ossoff shrugs off the Republican offensive as good news.
“That’s great,” he says, “It shows we can win.”