In Georgia, Republicans aim to hang onto congressional seat

Karen Handel
Karen Handel, Republican candidate for Georgia's 6th congressional district greets diners during a campaign stop at Old Hickory House in Tucker, Ga., Monday, June 19, 2017. The race between Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff is seen as a significant political test for the new Trump Administration. The district traditionally goes Republican, but most consider the race too close to call as voters head to the polls on Tuesday. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

ROSWELL, Ga. (AP) — Rain isn’t slowing down the Georgia voters who will settle the most expensive House race in U.S. history and potentially set a new course for the 2018 midterm elections.

Republican Karen Handel, a veteran Georgia politician, is fighting to claim the 6th Congressional District seat that’s been in her party’s hands since 1979. Democrat Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old first-time candidate, is hoping for an upset that would rattle Washington ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

“Our political system needs good, younger people to start replacing the old guard,” 56-year-old old Sheila Champion said Tuesday, explaining her support for Ossoff outside her polling place in suburban Sandy Springs.

But business owner and Handel supporter Tom Greathouse, 52, said the historically conservative district shouldn’t change course.

“This is such an important election because of what goes on in D.C.,” he said, adding that there has been “a ton of emotion” in a district used to watching Republicans coast.

The Handel-Ossoff matchup has become a proxy for the national political atmosphere and a test of GOP strength early in Donald Trump’s presidency, prompting record-breaking spending, a deluge of advertising and out-of-state volunteers, and more than a few tweets from the White House residence.

Voting technology activists also are keeping a close eye on the race after new details emerged last week about a security lapse at the center that manages Georgia’s election technology. State officials say they’re confident the technology is secure.

Democrats need to flip 24 Republican-held seats to reclaim a House majority; winning a conservative district like this one would embolden the party and serve notice to Republicans that a Democratic takeover is possible.

Handel and Ossoff have tried to say this race isn’t about Trump or Washington, but the president and the GOP agenda on Capitol Hill have dominated the campaign.

Attorney David Ware said he voted for Ossoff because the Democrat defends the Affordable Care Act — President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. Handel and Trump want to overhaul it.

“We have a chance to make a decision about who’s going to lead us whether the president is there or not there, whether his policies are good or bad,” said Ware, 63, an attorney.

Ossoff is a former congressional staffer turned documentary filmmaker who has become a symbol of the anti-Trump movement. Yet Ossoff barely mentions Trump, talking instead in generalities about “restoring civility” and Congress’ oversight role.

Handel, 55, embraces her experience as a statewide and local elected official, often telling voters: “You know me.”

She’s also known for being a Susan G. Komen Foundation executive in 2012 when the organization sought to cut off its support of Planned Parenthood.

The affluent and well-educated district has elected former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Johnny Isakson, now Georgia’s senior U.S. senator; and most recently Tom Price, who resigned in February to join Trump’s administration. Trump barely edged Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 6th in November.

Handel has handled Trump gingerly. She barely mentioned him ahead of finishing second to Ossoff in an April primary but welcomed him for a private fundraiser later that month.

That hasn’t stopped Trump from weighing in on the race. Trump tweeted early Tuesday that Ossoff will raise taxes, is weak on crime and “doesn’t even live in (the) district.” Ossoff lives in Atlanta, south of the suburban district. He has said he grew up in the district and now lives close to Emory University, where his fiancée attends medical school.

Ossoff raised more than $23 million, most from outside Georgia. He emphasizes it’s mostly from individual donors. Handel says many of those people live in Democratic-leaning states.

Handel has benefited from outside money, too. It just hasn’t flowed through her campaign, which has raised $5 million thanks in part to three fundraisers headlined by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee backed by Ryan, has spent $7 million on her behalf. National Republicans’ House campaign arm added $4.5 million, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce chipped in another seven figures.

Republicans won House special election victories already this year in GOP-held districts in Kansas and Montana and hope to add Georgia to that string. Republicans are favored to hold a fourth seat on Tuesday in South Carolina, while Democrats already held their lone open seat in a California special election.