On the first election afterwards

Will anti-Trump backlash let Democrats win the Georgia special election to replace Tom Price

via the Daily 202 in Washington Post  – by James Hohmann with Breanne Deppisch – Feb. 23rd, 2017


ROSWELL, Ga.—National Democrats are deploying resources to Georgia in hopes that the special election to replace Tom Price becomes a referendum on Donald Trump.

Mitt Romney won Price’s House district, (GA 6th), which spans the affluent and highly-educated suburbs north of Atlanta, with 61 percent in 2012. Donald Trump pulled just 48 percent in November, running neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton. That was one of the biggest swings of any congressional district in the country.

Now Price has resigned to become the secretary of health and human services, and Democrats see a unique opportunity to pick up his seat, which was once held by Newt Gingrich.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has just transferred money to the Georgia Democratic Party to hire nine staffers on the ground. In a lower-turnout contest, this field program will identify and register voters who have never been targeted in previous elections.

Price never won reelection with less than 62 percent of the vote, but this is the kind of district that Democrats will need to find a way to flip if they are going to seize the House majority in Nov. 2018.

While 11 Republicans have jumped into the race and are already duking it out, Democrats have mostly coalesced behind a former congressional aide named Jon Ossoff. It’s a jungle primary, which means that all the candidates are going to appear on the same ballot on April 18. The top two finishers will then face off in a June 20 runoff. Democrats hope the contenders in the crowded GOP field beat each other up and try to outdo one another in pledging loyalty to Trump.

Ossoff just turned 30. He worked as a staffer for Rep. Hank Johnson, who represents a majority African-American district in Atlanta, off and on from 2006 to 2012. He speaks French, did his undergraduate studies at Georgetown and earned a master’s from the London School of Economics. He started a firm that makes documentary films about corruption.

He faces a tricky balancing act: Capitalize on the surge of anti-Trump energy on the left that has led to mass protests and a fresh wave of activism while also presenting himself to voters in a right-leaning district as a pragmatic moderate. The liberal Daily Kos website has helped him raise almost $1 million online, a wild amount of grassroots support for an unknown House candidate, and the campaign says more than 3,500 Georgians have signed up to volunteer.

Ossoff is pretty open that he wants the race to be all about Trump. “I think people are embarrassed by him,” he said during a lunchtime interview at Fellini’s Pizza in Decatur. “People are concerned he’s dishonest and not competent.”

The first-time candidate downplayed his partisanship, spoke very cautiously and relentlessly stuck to his moderate message during our conversation. “I will carry myself with respect and humility and talk about solutions, rather than name calling,” he said, stressing that he believes in strong oversight of the president regardless of which party is in power.

It’s hard to forecast what the political environment will be like in four months. Many GOP congressional candidates successfully distanced themselves from Trump on the trail last year, when conventional wisdom was that he wouldn’t win and his brand was perceived as distinct from the GOP’s. In the midterms, when his presidency is no longer a hypothetical, will voters tie the party’s congressional candidates to Trump? We’ll get an early indication of that here in Georgia.

Over two days, I traveled to every corner of the sixth district and chatted with more than three dozen voters about Trump. He is deeply polarizing: Everyone who agreed to talk with me had strong feelings. There was a stark generational divide: Older people tended to be enthusiastic, while younger people expressed fear and unease. No matter what they think of him, it was striking how closely everyone is following what Trump has been up to during his first month. People talked in surprising specifics about the cabinet picks, his 77-minute press conference and Michael Flynn’s resignation.

I encountered a lot of people under 45 who said they have never voted in the midterms before, let alone a special election, but what’s happening in Washington might prompt them to. Mark and Meagan Bruno, both 31, were college sweethearts. They each cast their first ballot for George W. Bush but neither even considered voting for Trump last November. Their community of Alpharetta overwhelmingly voted for Trump, they said, but primarily because people hated Hillary Clinton. One of their neighbors carved a pumpkin for Halloween that depicted the Democratic nominee as a prisoner behind bars. “A lot of people have buyers’ remorse now,” Mark said.

Meagan is a pregnant stay-at-home mom. As her two-year-old son nibbled Chick-Fil-A nuggets for dinner the other night, she leaned over to whisper her honest assessment of the president: “I think he’s kind of a douche, for lack of a better word. He seems clownish, and his tweets are ridiculous. Say what you will about our other presidents, but they weren’t (jerks). They’ve all been decent people.”

Mark sells health care software, and he says business is hard right now because of all the uncertainty surrounding whether Obamacare will be repealed and what it might be replaced with. “Major spending decisions are being put on hold because companies want to see how things shake out,” he lamented. “It’s anybody’s guess that happens with Medicare reimbursements.”

But, but, but: The highest-propensity voters in special elections, senior citizens, also happen to be the most enthusiastic about Trump. While some moderates express discomfort with the 70-year-old, and the district’s demographics are not a great fit for him, the president has plenty of hardcore supporters who promise to support anyone who supports his agenda. Reflecting Trump’s popularity with the base, none of the Republicans running in the special election have publicly broken with him or meaningfully distanced themselves.

“He’s pissing off enough people that I’m happy,” said Martin Yannario, 76, a Republican who spent his career at IBM. “I didn’t care for Romney because he was so weak-kneed. Trump is gutsy. … I don’t know if he’ll get anything done, but at least he’s stirring it up. Everyone in Washington is just afraid of their gravy train getting cut off, which is why they oppose him.”

“I know he says stuff he shouldn’t, but I think he’s going to ultimately get the job done,” added his wife, Lorraine, 78, a retired bank teller. “The silent majority has spoken. They want him to keep doing what he’s doing, no matter what the papers say. They’re going to give the guy a chance. He just has to ignore all of the paid protesters.”

Dorothy Zierer, 75, who used to work at Verizon as a technical writer, talks every night with her daughter, a practicing attorney, about whatever Trump did that day. “We’re loving it,” she gushed. “The more he can get done, the better! … I’ve known a lot of men like him from working at corporations. They’re the kind of people who get things done. … My stocks are doing really well!” She said he “flubbed” the immigration order, but his heart is in the right place. “He’s not a politician,” Zierer explained. “All of my friends love that, especially people in my age group.”

Maria Sepulveda, 49, is strongly anti-abortion and said Trump’s selection of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court validated her decision to vote for him last fall. “He’s fulfilling his promises, and that is the most important quality in a president,” she said, as she brought her 11-year-old son to get a book at the Roswell library. “I see his personality as a plus. He shouldn’t care what others think.”

A 66-year-old retiree who said she is good friends with Tom and Betty Price did not want to be quoted on the record saying that she couldn’t bear to support Trump or Clinton last November. She left that part of her ballot blank. She had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012. She said she actually agrees with most of Trump’s policies, but his “arrogance” repels her. “For someone in my generation, Twitter doesn’t work at all,” said the woman, who lives in Roswell. “It doesn’t work for him either. It’s too off the cuff. He needs to cut it out.” She plans to study the congressional candidates closely.

— To be sure: Democrats, long accustomed to being in the minority here, are inflamed and newly emboldened. “I thought I could give the guy a chance, but I’m not happy with a single thing he’s done so far,” said David Sanders, 64, a nurse anesthetist, as he shopped at a mall in Dunwoody. “I get so frustrated when I hear really intelligent people, like the doctors I work with, making excuses for Trump. They know darn well that some of his nominees are just plain stupid. … I see it as a wake-up call. If we don’t get involved, things will go backwards to the good ole boys, instead of toward inclusion, which is the direction we had been heading.”

Dave Woody, 71, who installs and assembles furniture, considers himself extremely liberal but he volunteered that Democrats need to rally behind a centrist to win in a district like Price’s. “A good candidate is a moderate who can get elected,” he said. “Not like me! I could never get elected!” Told that Ossoff has the support of John Lewis, who represents an adjacent district, he replied: “Anybody Lewis is in favor of, I’d support automatically. But that might mean he’s too liberal then.”

His daughter Morgan, 24, a barista at Starbucks, supported Bernie Sanders last year. “I’m just as liberal as my dad, but I too really think it will take a moderate,” she said. “The country is just so divided right now, and we really need someone who can bring both sides together.”

Indeed, feelings remain very raw four months after the election. Gideon Lanstra, 18, said everyone in her family voted for Trump but she supported Clinton. She said it’s very hard to be friends with anyone who supports the president. At Kennesaw State, where she attended classes last semester, her roommate backed The Donald. “I got silent angry,” she recalled. “That means I’m not going to punch you or yell at you, but gosh I’m upset.” Now she’s trying to find an apartment with someone else.

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