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Trump’s Shadow Is Looming Over This Special Election

Donald Trump
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
Donald Trump

SANDY SPRINGS, Georgia — Amy King, an accountant in this Atlanta suburb, said she's always been a Republican.

But when a Republican, Judson Hill — the first candidate to enter the first competitive congressional race of Donald Trump's presidency — knocked on her door Tuesday evening, King told him she was considering voting Democrat or just skipping the upcoming special congressional election.

"I've been thinking about how no one in the Republican Party is standing up to what is crazy," she said while standing her driveway, mentioning some of Trump's controversial Cabinet appointments and statements.

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"It's immensely shaken my confidence in the Republican Party," added King, who declined to say who she voted for in the presidential election.

With dispirited Republican voters like King on one side and a fired-up liberal base on the other, Democrats are hoping to use the April 18 special election in Georgia's 6th Congressional District as a model for how to convert Trump's unpopularity into votes in future contests.

It's a high-profile race for a seat that used be held by Newt Gingrich and which was recently vacated by former Rep. Tom Price, who joined Trump's cabinet as Health and Human Services Secretary.

But even though Trump is at the center of this race, which both parties are watching as a bellwether of the midterms in 2018, most contestants in the sprawling 18-candidate field don't want to mention his name.

Hill, a former Ronald Reagan aide who represented a large swath of this district for 12 years in the state Senate, insists he is asked about Trump only by reporters, not voters.

"This is not referendum on the president," he told NBC News.

Still, while Hill says that he has no doubt a Republican would handily win here in a more conventional election, he's worried this one is different. As he knocks on the doors of reliable Republican homes in this affluent area, Hill finds politically weary voters who are bit overwhelmed by their choice among 11 GOP candidates.

"People are not expecting an election in April. Getting them to be aware of the election and focused on it when they've gone through a lot in 2016 with the presidential race has been a real challenge," Hill said.

In low-turnout elections like this, when a few hundred votes can make the difference, enthusiasm goes a long away.

Democrats want to send a message

For Democrat Jon Ossoff, awareness has not been a problem.

He's lead every poll and this week announced raising a record-breaking $8.3 million over the past three months.

Most of that came from out-of-state liberals looking for a way to stick it to Trump by donating to Ossoff, a 30-year-old investigative journalist who doesn't actually live in the district.

But on a rainy Wednesday morning last week as Ossoff took the stage of Oglethorpe University, he nodded to the hopes people have invested in him — but never actually talked about Trump.

"We have the first chance in the country to make a statement about what we stand for. The eyes of the nation are on us," he told the school's chapter of the College Democrats, which report engagement levels in this race matching or exceeding those of the 2016 presidential election.

"We can win this thing on April 18 and send a message that will be heard across metro Atlanta, across Georgia, and across the country," he added.

Ossoff has largely consolidated his party's support, much to the chagrin of other Democratic contestants. "I almost feel like Bernie Sanders and what they did to him in his election," said former Democratic state Sen. Ron Slotin, who is also in the race.

But while backing from party leaders like Nancy Pelosi has gotten him to the low 40s in most polls, Ossoff needs to shed his partisan edges to make Republicans and independents feel comfortable voting for him.

Under the unusual rules of election, all 18 candidates — 11 Republicans, five Democrats and two independents — will appear on the ballot. The top two vote-getters of any party will advance to a June runoff election, unless one candidate gets more than 50 percent, in which case they win outright.

Ossoff's best chance at victory is to carry the day against a divided field this month, rather than face off against one GOP candidate and a united Republican Party in June. So he's doing everything he can to climb above 50%.

Ossoff launched his campaign with an invitation for donors to "make Trump furious," but now goes out of his way to avoid discussing the president or the fact that he is a Democrat.

Instead, he's casting himself as a bipartisan pragmatist whose real foils are gridlock and political corruption.

In an interview with NBC News, Ossoff said it's about "staying focused on executing locally."

"The campaign is an alternative to despair and anger. By staying focused on positive American values that unite people, like courage and decency, and humility, and respect, the contrast with what's happening in Washington is obvious," he said.

In an indication of the national interest in the race, outside conservative groups have spent nearly $5 million on TV ads portraying the first-time candidate as a sympathizer of Osama Bin Laden, a left-wing extremist, a Nancy Pelosi "yes man," and a college nerd who likes to dress up as Star Wars characters.

Bellwether?

In general, Sixth District Republicans are not Trump Republicans.

The district is one of the nation's most educated and affluent. It went for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the GOP primary and Trump eked out a narrow 1.5 percent win over Hillary Clinton — a far cry from Mitt Romney's 24 percent romp over Barack Obama in 2012.

"Since I first moved into it 27 years ago, it was a whole lot different than it is today," said Dan Moody, a leading Republican candidate with the backing of former Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Moody this week launched ad saying Trump has "great ideas — if the hard work gets done. Well, I love hard work."

But the "Trump" ideas Moody touts — term limits and reducing the size of government — are traditional conservative ideas that were never central to Trump's message.

Most of the other top GOP candidates, like former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, have avoided discussing the president.

Handel, who is relatively well known thanks to a gubernatorial bid and her high-profile resignation from the Susan B. Komen breast cancer foundation over its decision to support Planned Parenthood, has positioned herself as a "results-oriented" leader.

"We have had enough talk in Washington. It is time to deliver," she says, without saying to whom exactly in Washington she is referring.

The Trump wing

But two Republican candidates have decided that in a crowded field there is a Trump lane to victory — and each is trying to push the other into a ditch.

"If they want to make this referendum on Trump, I'm very happy to take that fight. And I'm ready to bring it to them," said Bob Gray, a soft-spoken businessman.

Gray is temperamentally nothing like Trump, which perhaps helped him secure support from the Wall Street-backed Club for Growth, which has spent almost $300,000 on his race, even though it and Trump have mutual distrust.

Bruce LaVell, who led Trump's diversity coalition and brags about his friendships with top White House aides, calls Gray a phony.

"You claim to be this Trump candidate, and yet you're in bed with Club with Growth," LaVell bellowed during a debate Wednesday. "I am Donald Trump's top surrogate here in Georgia and nationally."

LaVell sells his ability to get White House officials on the phone, bragging about his friendship with people close to Trump, like former campaign manager Corey Lewandowsky, who stumped for the candidate in March.

"Corey's very close to me," Lavell told NBC News.

"A lot of people are kind of star struck because they see me on the news a lot. They know I know the president very well, they know I know the family very well," he said. "There's nobody on the stage who's going to have that clout like me."

A model for Democrats?

Democrats hope Ossoff will help beat a path out of the political wilderness and back to the majority.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent nine staffers to the district and has conducted three focus groups to try to glean lessons that could be applied to 2018 races.

The liberals who filled Ossoff's campaign coffers seem to be fine with — or perhaps unaware of the fact — that their anti-Trump hero sounds more like a moderate.

It underscores the challenge Democrats face in trying to turn the anti-Trump "resistance" into electoral wins next year. Go too hard on Trump and risk turning off independents and moderate Republicans; go too soft on Trump and risk losing the liberal base.

Stacey Abrams, the top Democrat in the Georgia State House, said Democrats need to prepare for much more work even if Ossoff wins. "I am very hopeful and bullish in on his victory, but I also think we do ourselves a disservice if we think that one election is the barometer of change," she said.

Back in Sandy Springs, Maggie Williams, a Republican who lives around the corner from Amy King, seemed to be dreading another election. Answering the door with a baby in her arms and two dogs at her feet, she was not eager to talk about the president.

"It's like I almost don't want to watch the news anymore because it's like, what did President Trump do today?" she said. "I hope it all just settles down."