ALPHARETTA, Ga. — For a brief moment, Georgia’s 6th District was quiet.
Out-of-state journalists who flooded this suburban battleground headed for the airport Wednesday morning. After a very late Tuesday night, Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel held no public events in the district the next day. Instead, they gave interviews on cable TV — a reflection of how nationalized this race has become.
Millions of dollars poured into the 18-person jungle primary, and more money is on the way, with both parties now uniting behind their candidates in a special election that’s viewed as their first real political test of President Donald Trump’s presidency.
But both parties are also still trying to navigate what their bases look like and how they plan to play in future congressional primaries, for which this race is a possible test case.
That dynamic is especially interesting on the Republican side because the president’s underperformance of other Republicans in this district is the only reason it became competitive in the first place.
“Make no question about it, if Democrats are successful at winning this seat, it’s going to be hard for Republicans to spin that this race wasn’t about Donald Trump,” veteran Georgia GOP operative Chip Lake said.
With a long political resume (including two failed statewide runs) and D.C.-based consultants, Handel is as close to a career politician as it got in the primary on the GOP side. As the least Trump-friendly of the four strongest GOP candidates in a district Trump won by less than two points, it’s not surprising she earned the most GOP votes.
But hours after securing the second-place spot, Handel said on CNN Wednesday she hopes Trump comes down to campaign with her. He called to congratulate her, for which she thanked him on Twitter. And Thursday afternoon, he sent a fundraising email to her supporters.
Handel’s promised to be an independent leader who stands up to the president when necessary. She never mentioned him in her Tuesday night victory speech, but the day before the election, she couldn’t think of any policy areas where she disagreed with him.
As it did when Trump threatened House Freedom Caucus members earlier this spring, Trump world — to extent such a world exists — continues to defy conventional political alliances.
“It's hard to know who’s on first, who’s aligned with whom,” Lake said of the way political alliances have been confused in the first few months of the administration. “And in some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised because governing is a lot different from campaigning.”
The various outside groups spun off from the Trump campaign didn’t back either of the self-described Trump loyalists in the Georgia primary.
Instead, a pro-Trump organization called 45Committee attacked Johns Creek city councilman Bob Gray because he was endorsed by the Club for Growth, which opposed the GOP health care bill Trump pushed. The 45Committee has ties to a super PAC that spent on Handel’s behalf and has backed other establishment-friendly Republicans in congressional primaries.
But Handel wasn't a big fan of the original GOP health care plan, either.
Trump is scheduled to speak at a National Rifle Association forum in Atlanta next week, but, just based on how he performed in the district, Lake said he’d be surprised if Trump showed up in the 6th before the runoff. Speaker Paul D. Ryan is expected to make a trip to the 6th District. Data from the super PAC affiliated with GOP leadership has found that Ryan, rather than Trump, has been more effective at motivating GOP turnout here.
While she's uniting national GOP leadership behind her, Handel is also playing up endorsements from in-state Republicans who have previously opposed her. Her twitter account is a stream of ‘thank-yous’ to 6th District opponents and former opponents from her previous two statewide primary races. That's one big advantage Ossoff has heading into the runoff: his party has been unified behind him for much longer.
Sen. David Perdue, who defeated Handel in the 2014 Senate primary, didn’t even mention Handel by name in his statement on the 6th District results Wednesday morning. Thursday evening, he followed up with an endorsement statement that mentioned her at the end.
“Any time you’re a street fighter — and that’s what Karen is — you’re going to accumulate enemies,” Lake said. He would know; he’s been on the opposite side of her in the 2010 gubernatorial an 2014 Senate primaries. But Handel doesn’t have to become lifelong friends for these people for them to help her, he said.
“This is not a family fight where we need to settle scores. We have the entire country looking at us right now” Lake said.
No Georgia Republican wants it to become the first state in the Trump era to see a red district flipped blue. “If that’s going to happen, it needs to happen in another state,” Lake said.
Preventing Ossoff from winning the primary outright — he fell short of a majority with 48 percent of the vote — was a major victory for Republicans, who see the fundamentals of the district working in their favor in a two-person race.
“The dynamic slightly favors us, much like the jungle primary favored [Ossoff],” Lake said. “But we can’t take anything for granted in this environment.”
But Democrats are adamant that the energy behind Ossoff in the primary can be sustained. Raising more than $8 million, much of it from outside the state, the 30-year-old candidate stole the hearts of liberals across the nation — even Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has since quested whether he's a true progressive. Ossoff had his biggest single fundraising day on Wednesday, raking in half a million dollars, Politico reported. As Nathan Gonzales put it Wednesday, “the Ossoff campaign became this decade’s Obama campaign.”
Ossoff’s meteoric rise coincided with this year's eruption of grassroots liberal activism, from the Women’s Marches to protests at congressional town hall meeting across the country. The party is under pressure to get more involved in special elections in Montana and South Carolina.
But there are Democrats who think the party could have had a better chance in a traditionally red district like the 6th, maybe even topping 50 percent Tuesday night, with a more tested and less progressive candidate than the Georgetown-educated documentary filmmaker.
In general, the DCCC has expressed renewed interest in recruiting veterans and small business owners to run in 2018.
So the national party has to decide how much it’s going to prop up candidates like Ossoff, especially in red districts where the stigma of national Democrats can hurt. That was the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s argument for not getting involved in this month’s closer-than-expected race in Kansas.
The committee was much more involved in Georgia, sending staffers to the district early on and helping Ossoff train and establish an infrastructure to absorb all the money he raised. And it’s all in now. TV ads from the DCCC are coming for the runoff, while Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez is addressing a Georgia Democrats dinner that will raise money for Ossoff Thursday night.