Democrats Face Divided Republican Field In Georgia Special Election

Apr 18, 2017
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Let's talk now about an election in this country that's being seen as an early referendum on the Trump presidency. It's a special election to fill a congressional seat from suburban Atlanta that was left vacant by Tom Price when he became the health and human services secretary. The district is conservative, and there are many Republicans in the race.

Democrats have focused their money and attention mostly on one candidate, Jon Ossoff. Most of the polls there closed over an hour ago, and we are joined now by NPR's Mara Liasson. Hi there.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

MCEVERS: So are we seeing any results yet?

LIASSON: We are seeing some results, but there - too few of them to draw any conclusions. As expected, Jon Ossoff, the leading Democrat, is polling very, very well in the suburbs around Atlanta. That's DeKalb County. That's more Democratic-leaning than the northern part of the district. So we really have to wait to see what happens up there.

MCEVERS: Why is this one seat in the house such a big deal?

LIASSON: It's a big deal because it's the only game in town. It's a special election, and often special elections are freighted with too much significance. But the point is that this election is being watched very closely to see what it might or might not predict for the upcoming election cycle.

It's a Republican district but one that Trump barely won - just by a point and a half. It's been reliably Republican for decades. Tom Price won it by more than 20 points. So did Mitt Romney. It's suburban, highly educated. It's exactly the kind of suburban district the Democrats have to do well in if they're going to do well in 2018. So this is really a dress rehearsal for the 2018 congressional elections.

MCEVERS: Does it seem like Ossoff has a chance to win it?

LIASSON: Yes, I think he has a chance to win it. What he wants to do is get 50 - over 50 percent tonight in this crowded field. That means that he wouldn't have to face a runoff. If he gets under 50 percent, he'll face the top - presumably the second place winner will be the top Republican. And then the Republicans hope their vote will coalesce around that person and beat Ossoff.

I call this election a ham sandwich election. With all due respect to Jon Ossoff, he's 30 years, old a former Hill staffer and a documentary filmmaker. Democrats are so energized that they would vote for a ham sandwich to send a message against Trump.

And money has been pouring into this district for Ossoff. It's the only game in town for Democrats who want to express their opposition to Trump. He has dozens of grassroots field organizers - paid ones - and thousands of volunteers. And we're going to see if that organic enthusiasm which is on the Democratic side right now - it was on the Republican side in 2016 - we'll see if that can carry the day in a district that Democrats really shouldn't win.

MCEVERS: President Trump has tweeted that Ossoff, quote, "would be a disaster in Congress." What do you make of the fact that Trump has gotten involved in this race?

LIASSON: I interpret that as the White House being worried about this race, that it's possible that Ossoff can get over 50 percent tonight. And that would really send shockwaves through the party, and it would be interpreted as a very strong negative referendum on Trump.

But the president has tweeted about four times about this race using Ossoff's name. He's made robocalls to Republicans. And Democrats and some Republicans think Trump might be falling into the Democrats' strategy here because Ossoff wants to nationalize the race around Trump. Now Trump's getting involved, and that makes it harder for the Republicans to run just a localized campaign.

MCEVERS: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you very much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.