Tribune Washington Bureau
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

MARIETTA, Ga. — This orderly swath of Atlanta suburbs was never supposed to worry Republicans. They've had a lock on the congressional seat since 1979, with a string of rock-ribbed conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Tom Price.

Then Donald Trump happened.

Now the GOP is in an unexpected scramble to prevent a politically inexperienced millennial Democrat — unknown months ago — from turning their longtime stronghold blue.

Party officials are filled with angst ahead of Tuesday's special election in Georgia's 6th Congressional District to replace Price, who vacated the seat to become Trump's Health and Human Services secretary.

After a scare for Republicans in Kansas last week, when a congressional race got uncomfortably close in a district Trump had dominated in the presidential election, the Georgia fight teeters on becoming a full-blown crisis for a party that should be relishing its recent success and consolidating power. A Democratic win here, unthinkable weeks ago, is now a very real possibility. It would be another indication that Democrats are not the only party hobbled by a national identity crisis in the age of Trump.

"Nothing like this has ever happened before in Georgia," Charles S. Bullock III, a University of Georgia political science professor, said of the expensive free-for-all the race has become.

With Democratic donors nationwide rallying around 30-year-old Jon Ossoff, the surprise front-runner has raised a staggering $8.3 million, dwarfing contributions to all 11 of his Republican rivals combined.

For Democrats, the allure of the district stems from voter uneasiness about Trump, who barely won here in November. By contrast, Mitt Romney, the last GOP nominee, crushed Barack Obama by double digits.

Ossoff is polling at about 40 percent, far beyond any of his contenders in the open primary. That's largely because the GOP candidates are splitting the vote.

But Ossoff is now within striking distance of winning the majority required to avoid a runoff in June, which may be his best hope, since many believe a two-candidate runoff would favor the Republican.

"Two or three months ago, nobody had a clue who this guy was," Bullock said.

As they lined up at polls last week for early voting, several residents made clear they were viewing the race as a referendum on Trump.

"The Trump administration is scary," said Jeffrey Chou, a 25-year-old graduate student and Ossoff supporter voting for the first time. "I don't like what they are doing. I felt it was important to come out and send a message that we don't support it."

He was joined in line by a 60-year-old nurse who voted for Price in the past but said all the "insanity" at the White House had driven her to vote Democratic this time. Arriving soon after was a 38-year-old patent agent trainee who hadn't volunteered for a political campaign since college but said Trump's behavior pushed her to canvass for Ossoff. A physician in his 60s who said he had worked with Price professionally and voted for him declared he would cast a ballot for Ossoff to "stick it in the eyes of Trump."

"You are seeing the liberals demonstrating their total disgust for Donald Trump," said Max Wagerman, 52, a GOP loyalist who boasted of living in the same subdivision as Gingrich. "They've got all the juice now. They have the organization. Republicans here are just too lazy, and the liberals are going to get this one."

With momentum on his side, Ossoff is now everywhere: omnipresent in TV ads, his face plastered on lawn signs and car bumper stickers, talked up by the thousands of volunteers — many from out of state — knocking on doors and calling voters.

Desire by Democrats to land an electoral blow against Trump is so intense that the party is showing uncharacteristic discipline in a messy race with 18 candidates. It quickly rallied behind Ossoff, with liberal bloggers setting in motion a Bernie Sanders-style fundraising operation that has resulted in a frenzy of small-dollar donations, the largest number of which are coming not from Georgia but California.

Ossoff is no Bernie Sanders. He is a cautious, scripted moderate who spends much less time on the campaign trail whipping up rage against Trump than carefully calculating remarks that avoid offending the area's upscale suburban electorate.

"Folks here are excited now for fresh leadership presenting a substantive message about local economic development and talking about core values," he said at his Marietta campaign office, just before a crowded candidate forum where Ossoff was the only one who ended some of his answers without using the full minute allotted. "They are tired of partisan politics."

But partisan politics is what they are getting. First, there is his deluge of outside cash. Republican groups have countered by pouring millions of dollars into ads attacking Ossoff as a political neophyte aligned with rioting protesters. One even made ominous insinuations about Ossoff's past work as a filmmaker for cable channel Al-Jazeera.

Republicans are focusing their attacks on one another. They are slugging it out for what they hope will be a spot on the runoff ballot against Ossoff. The intensity of their attacks lay bare how much Trump has complicated Republican politics.

Establishment favorite Karen Handel, the former Georgia secretary of state, has watched her strong lead diminish amid an assault from the conservative anti-tax group Club for Growth and others who question her ideological purity. One ad depicts her as a stumbling elephant in pearls; others accuse the fiscal conservative of recklessly spending tax dollars.

"All you need to know about this district is Mitt Romney won it by 22 points and Trump won it by 1 { points," said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who is working as a consultant for Handel. "This defines the kind of upscale suburban district where Trump struggled. Karen is the type of person this district has tended to support."

One Trump loyalist who threatens to overtake her is Bob Gray, a telecom executive backed by the Club for Growth. He dismissed as hype the chatter that the local electorate is so uneasy with Trump that it could go blue. "I don't think it's in the cards," Gray said. "This is a conservative seat. Let's be real: Newt Gingrich, Tom Price. The district hasn't changed that much."

Gray stars in his own not-so-subtle TV ad wearing a pair of vibrant camouflage waders and fueling a giant motorized pump, which he then uses to "drain the swamp" — a nod to Trump's catchphrase.

Many of the leading candidates chafed when asked whether the race had become a referendum on Trump.

Said Judson Hill, an anti-tax advocate and GOP candidate: "Donald Trump is not on the ballot here."

But as residents stood in line a few miles away to cast ballots in early voting, it was undeniable that Trump was on their minds.