Ossoff, Handel make final pitches in keenly watched Georgia election

Run-off in 6th Congressional District seen as possible preview to 2018 midterm elections

In this June 6, 2017 photo, candidates in Georgia's 6th Congressional District race Republican Karen Handel, left, and Democrat Jon Ossoff prepare to debate in Atlanta. (Branden Camp/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
In this June 6, 2017 photo, candidates in Georgia's 6th Congressional District race Republican Karen Handel, left, and Democrat Jon Ossoff prepare to debate in Atlanta. (Branden Camp/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

ROSWELL, Georgia (AP) — Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff are making their final arguments in the race that offers a potential preview of the 2018 midterm elections.

Handel used an election-eve rally to urge suburban Atlanta Republicans not to be wowed by the attention — and millions of dollars — showered on this House special election.

“We cannot let up. There is too much at stake,” Handel said, acknowledging the white hot spotlight on a contest that has become a proxy for national politics and a test for the GOP early in Donald Trump’s presidency.

Across town, an even more boisterous crowd dominated by millennials chanted “Flip the 6th! Flip the 6th!” as the 30-year-old Ossoff, who is Jewish, took the microphone.

A former congressional staffer making his first bid for public office, Ossoff has spent the months-long campaign bouncing between excited Democrats eager to topple Trump and the independents and moderates who are unhappy with Washington yet wary about voting for a Democrat.

Democratic candidate for Georgia's 6th Congressional seat Jon Ossoff greets supporters at a campaign field office Tuesday, April 18, 2017. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Democratic candidate for Georgia’s 6th Congressional seat Jon Ossoff greets supporters at a campaign field office Tuesday, April 18, 2017. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

On the final night before voting, though, he played to the base.

“Politics does not have to be about fear and hate and deception and division,” he said, avoiding mentioning President Donald Trump directly, as is his custom, but blistering “those cynics in Washington, D.C.”

Then he offered a list of priorities sure to rouse any liberal.

“Together we are going to stand up for the rights of women … for science, clean air and clean water and a climate we can live in,” he said, adding “civil rights and voting rights” and “the LGBT community here in Georgia.”

A gaggle of national and foreign media looked on at both rallies, a testament to how a single congressional seat has become a dominant story in US politics.

Spending in the race could top $50 million, making it the most expensive House contest in US history. Democrats see an opportunity to pick up a seat represented by Republicans since 1979, most recently by the man who now serves as Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary.

More than 140,000 voters have cast early ballots, suggesting total turnout will exceed a typical midterm election.

Democrats need to flip at least 24 GOP-held seats to reclaim a House majority and dent the GOP’s monopoly control in the nation’s capital.

Republican candidate for Georgia's 6th Congressional seat Karen Handel, left, updates supporters with her husband Steve on early results at an election night watch party in Roswell, Ga., Tuesday, April 18, 2017.(AP/David Goldman)
Republican candidate for Georgia’s 6th Congressional seat Karen Handel, left, updates supporters with her husband Steve on early results at an election night watch party in Roswell, Ga., Tuesday, April 18, 2017.(AP/David Goldman)

Republicans see an opportunity to squelch Democratic enthusiasm. The GOP has already won House special elections in Montana and Kansas, and the Republican is favored in a South Carolina race Tuesday.

Still, all four of those seats are traditionally Republican. There are 23 other GOP-held House districts, many of them suburban, like the Georgia 6th, where Democrat Hillary Clinton topped Trump last November.

Even watching Ossoff push Handel to the limit here would give those incumbents pause.

Trump jumped into the race via Twitter on Monday, writing that Ossoff “can’t even vote … because he doesn’t even live there!”

Ossoff lives in Atlanta, south of the suburban district. Ossoff has said the address is close to Emory University, where his fiancee attends medical school.

Bill Johns, a Handel supporter from East Cobb, said he considers a vote for the GOP candidate a show of support for Trump.

“I think getting her elected helps his position and also gives us a stronger Republican Congress,” Johns, 71, said over a platter of pulled pork.

Handel maintained some distance from Trump in the primary but has fully embraced his support and agenda since, including a joint fundraiser. She and outside groups supporting her campaign have instead tried to link Ossoff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, May 19, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, May 19, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“The people of this district are not, from a views and a values standpoint, aligned with Nancy Pelosi,” she said Monday.

Ossoff, who once described his bid to take the GOP-controlled district as an opportunity to “make Trump furious,” has since dialed back. Earlier Monday, he downplayed Trump’s role in the race while rallying supporters in Chamblee, but he acknowledged that it is a motivating force for many supporters.

“There are many in this community, myself among them, who have deep concerns about the direction of things in Washington, about the integrity and competence of this administration,” he said.

Ossoff supporter Karen Langford said she had never volunteered for a political campaign until this year. The 70-year-old retiree said she has volunteered for Ossoff since March, motivated by her fears about Trump’s election and his approach to health care, immigration and education.

“We let that happen,” she said. “I needed to do something to change it.”

The homestretch scramble was marked by a last-minute ad from a little-known political action committee trying to tie Ossoff’s campaign to the “violent left” and the recent shooting of Republican House Whip Steve Scalise by a man who identified as a liberal.

Steve Scalise speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 8, 2017. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Steve Scalise speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 8, 2017. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Handel told reporters Monday that she had not seen the ad. After a reporter described it, Handel called it “disgusting” and said it should come down.

Principled PAC, the organization that produced the ad, had not disclosed its donors before this weekend, when the group unveiled the spot.

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