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Trump attempts to rally support for GOP special election candidate

FILE - In this June 6, 2017 file 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)

President Donald Trump is voicing his support for the Republican candidate in a high-profile congressional special election as the hours tick down until the polls open on Tuesday, attempting to avert an embarrassing GOP loss that could derail his agenda.

“The Dems want to stop tax cuts, good healthcare and Border Security.Their ObamaCare is dead with 100% increases in P's. Vote now for Karen H,” Trump tweeted, referring to Karen Handel, the Republican candidate in the 6th District of Georgia.

He later attacked Handel’s opponent, Jon Ossoff, over the fact that he currently lives outside the district. Ossoff received 48 percent in the first round of voting in April, leading to the June 20 runoff with Handel, who bested nearly a dozen other Republicans.

“Obviously the President is going to do whatever he has to to help support growing his majorities in both Houses,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Monday.

Trump waded into the race in the final days before the April election as well, claiming Ossoff wanted to “protect criminals, allow illegal immigration and raise taxes.” He then declared the runoff a “BIG ‘R’ win.”

“Dems failed in Kansas and are now failing in Georgia. Great job Karen Handel! It is now Hollywood vs. Georgia on June 20th,” Trump wrote on April 19.

The Georgia 6 race has since developed such outsized significance on the national stage that out-of-state donations have turned it into the most expensive congressional race in history. Ossoff has received more money from California and New York than he has from within the state of Georgia.

Tuesday’s election will decide who takes the seat formerly held by Tom Price, Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services, in what has been a reliably Republican district for decades. While Price won reelection last fall by 23 points and Mitt Romney won the presidential vote there in 2012 by the same margin, Trump only defeated Hillary Clinton by 1.5 points.

It is unclear how much Trump’s support benefits Handel. While he is more popular in Georgia 6 than in many other parts of the country, his approval rating there is still well below 50 percent.

“Handel’s challenge has been to bring a really diverse Republican coalition together,” said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.

The district chose Sen. Marco Rubio over Trump in the presidential primaries, but Handel faced challenges from Tea Party and pro-Trump candidates back in April. In a field of 11 Republicans, she had to tread carefully, but she is now attempting to unite those factions behind her for the runoff.

“She couldn’t stand apart from President Trump completely…but at the same time she had to distinguish herself,” Gillespie said.

Whether Trump’s tweets are a net positive for Handel depends on whom the intended audience is. In a close race like this, Democratic consultant Mark Gersh said rallying the base to show up at the polls is more important than persuading those who are still on the fence.

“You make the underlying assumption that there’s very little undecided vote and you try to mobilize your base,” said Gersh, former head of the National Committee for an Effective Congress.

Alejandro Chavez, senior electoral campaign manager for progressive organization Democracy for America, is on the ground in Georgia working to whip up support for Ossoff among traditionally low-turnout areas. The president’s role in the race is not much of a factor among those constituencies.

“The challenge is actually contacting people, letting them know we have an election,” he said.

Trump has not traveled to Georgia himself to campaign for Handel since a fundraiser in April, but two of his Cabinet secretaries—Price and former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue—appeared at a Handel rally over the weekend.

“I know some of you, some Republicans, may even be turned off by our president,” Perdue acknowledged at the event, but he insisted Trump cares for people and keeps his promises.

For a young and inexperienced politician, Ossoff is carrying a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. After two special elections in Kansas and Montana where Democrats had to settle for losing by substantially less than expected, this is the first race since November where victory is realistically within their grasp.

“These are not swing districts…. It continues that narrative of saying, hey, when we organize, when we work together, we can actually win races,” Chavez said. “In order to win races, we have to be in them.”

According to Gillespie, this district is the most competitive special election yet for a seat previously held by the GOP. That makes it the first real test of whether anger over the election results is enough to mobilize the left to vote.

“It’s a big psychological win for Democrats” if Ossoff succeeds, she said.

Georgia Republican consultant Chip Lake told Politico the stakes are high on both sides.

“We didn’t need a competitive special election to know that we’re going to be on defense in 2018,” he said, “but it does confirm what we already know — we have our work cut out for us if we don’t want to lose the House.”

Despite Ossoff’s strong performance in April and the growing strength of the anti-Trump resistance, his supporters are quick to point out that the race for the seat once held by Newt Gingrich should still be a longshot for a Democrat.

“I won’t kid you,” Gersh said. “It’s winnable, but all of the dynamics favor Republicans.”

Even if Ossoff loses by a small margin, Gersh argued it will still be indicative of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the president and the House majority. As in Kansas and Montana, important constituencies are shifting away from the GOP, and that pattern could be replicated in other districts around the country.

“If he were defeated narrowly, it would not necessarily shake my belief that we can win back the House in 18 months,” he said.

Although Democrats want Ossoff’s vote in Congress, Chavez believes just keeping the race close is fueling the momentum of the anti-Trump effort.

“Being close is sending a huge message already that the resistance and the people are ready to stand up and do what is necessary to win races,” he said.

However, political analyst Stu Rothenberg explained in a blog post why an Ossoff loss would be “a gut punch for critics of the president.”

“A win by Republican Karen Handel would deny Democrats and anti-Trump Independents something that they very much need: a sign of progress, an optimistic outcome that would energize the president’s opponents and prove to President Trump’s critics that he is a liability,” Rothenberg wrote at InsideElections.com.

One wild card factor in the race is the shooting that wounded Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., and three others at a congressional baseball practice last week. The shooter was a Bernie Sanders supporter whose Facebook page was filled with anti-GOP posts.

Republicans have attempted to link Ossoff to the violent rhetoric of the extreme left. Even before the shooting, Handel allies were running ads that included comedian Kathy Griffin posing with a severed Trump head.

Today, an ad by a conservative PAC is scheduled to run on Fox News that features footage of Scalise being wheeled into an ambulance.

“When will it stop?” the narrator says. “It won’t if Jon Ossoff wins on Tuesday, because the same unhinged leftists cheering last week’s shooting are all backing Jon Ossoff. And if he wins, they win.”

One local GOP official told the Washington Post, “I think the shooting is going to win this election for us.”

Others are far less convinced that the actions of a lone gunman with no connection to Ossoff has turned the tide of the campaign, particularly since so many in the district took advantage of early voting.

“A lot of people have already voted, so it may not change a lot of people’s minds,” Gillespie said, adding that relatively few people are likely to see the ad at this point.

“We actually have not heard anything from people about how that’s impacting their view on the race,” Chavez said.

The heated race has resulted in intensifying threats against both candidates, including white powder sent to Handel and her neighbors last week that reportedly turned out to be baking soda.

If this all seems rather intense for an off-season special election for a single congressional seat, it is. On a practical level, an Ossoff win would barely put a dent in the GOP House majority and a Handel victory would just maintain the status quo. As a symbol of Democratic momentum and a harbinger of the 2018 midterm elections, though, this election matters a great deal.

As Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight argued, the outcome of this election could help decide the future of health care policy since the fate of the American Health Care Act hangs in the balance. The Senate version of the Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill is being crafted in secret, but Senate leadership aims to hold a vote before the July recess.

The House health care legislation has proven extremely unpopular, and the Congressional Budget Office estimated it could leave 23 million more people uninsured. Senators have signaled they will make some changes and President Trump has reportedly asked them to make it less “mean,” but a yes vote will still carry political risks.

“A loss for Handel would probably be interpreted by the GOP as a sign that the status quo wasn’t working,” Silver wrote. “If even a few members of Congress began taking the exit ramp on Trump and the American Health Care Act, a number of others might follow.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution estimates spending on the campaign has topped $50 million, including $27 million in TV and radio ads since the first round of voting in April. Ossoff’s campaign has spent $14 million on ad time, while Handel has spent $2.5 million.

All that money means both sides have plenty of resources to learn from this election regardless of the outcome, according to Gillespie. She expects the parties to test messaging and outreach strategies to determine which ones are effective and which ones can be scaled up to bigger campaigns.

“I view this race as basically a campaign incubator about which tactics are going to be the best in 2018 cycle,” she said.

Activists hope Ossoff’s performance will inspire other candidates to take on Republicans in traditionally red districts and convince Democrats that they can compete everywhere.

“A victory will say that these Trump policies and the Republicans that do not stand up to these Trump policies are done,” Chavez said.

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