A Georgia special election – what some are calling the opening salvo of the battle for control of the House of Representatives -- has laid bare conservative infighting as it pits establishment Republicans against those aiming to show loyalty to President Donald Trump.
National Republicans, nervous that they could lose a traditionally conservative suburban district in Atlanta where Trump underperformed, see any upset in the 6th district race as something that will embolden the Democrats ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel was the initial GOP favorite among the 18 total candidates vying to replace Tom Price, who resigned to serve as Trump's health secretary. Now Handel finds herself targeted with a six-figure attack ad from the conservative Club for Growth, which is casting her as just another big-spending politician.
Washington-based Club for Growth has endorsed Handel's rival Bob Gray. The wealthy technology executive models his pitch after Trump, pledging to be a "willing partner" for the billionaire president. In one TV spot, Gray dons hip waders and literally drains a swamp, a reference to Trump's catchphrase.
Meanwhile, all 11 Republican candidates are looking up at Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democrat who has raised at least $8.3 million. The eye-popping figure affirms Ossoff as a focus of the disparate anti-Trump movement around the country. He's also got an army of volunteers that even includes actress Alyssa Milano, who helped woo voters to early polling locations.
All 18 candidates from both parties will appear on one April 18 primary ballot, with polls suggesting that Ossoff will lead the first round of voting. Republicans are aiming to keep Ossoff below the majority required to win outright, forcing a two-person runoff — basically a Republican v. Democrat general election — on June 20.
Around the country, Democrats will look in 2018 to reverse Republicans' 237-193 House majority, and Georgia's 6th district is a model for suburban areas that could determine House control. Earlier this year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced it was putting full-time organizers on the ground in 20 GOP districts as part of a strategy it calls “March Into ’18.”
National Republicans and their aligned political organizations frame Ossoff, a former congressional staffer turned investigative filmmaker, as an inexperienced, ambitious climber certain to be a "rubber stamp" for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. The leading spender is the Congressional Leadership Fund, backed by Speaker Paul Ryan. The PAC has plowed at least $2.2 million into Georgia.
But the Republicans actually in the race have yet to turn their full attention to Ossoff, and none of them can match his money advantage, including multimillionaire candidates spending their own money.
The national Republican Party isn't taking sides, but has 15 staffers in Georgia and a paid advertising campaign encouraging the district to "vote Republican." Party officials say they want to stoke Republican turnout to drive up the majority threshold Ossoff would need to win a primary outright.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.