Georgia voters will deliver an early referendum, and here's why Trump and his party are worried

Will Georgia's special election become a referendum on Trump?
Will Georgia's special election become a referendum on Trump?

SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. — Georgia voters will deliver an early referendum on President Donald Trump on Tuesday, and the president and his party are worried.

Here in Atlanta's northern suburbs, Democrat Jon Ossoff has a chance to win a special election for the House seat that Republican Tom Price gave up to become Trump's Secretary of Health and Human Services.

If he does, Republicans will suddenly confront the possibility that they could lose control of Congress in next year's midterm elections. That, in turn, could scare away more Republicans from cooperating with the president and cripple the White House agenda.

Under normal circumstances, Ossoff wouldn't have much chance. Republicans have held the 6th House district for nearly 40 years. Price cruised to an easy re-election victory last November.

But Trump, four years after Mitt Romney carried the district lopsidedly against President Barack Obama, barely edged by Hillary Clinton here. That's because the district contains a heavy concentration of residents with college educations — the segment of white voters most skeptical of Trump's bombastic, populist style.

Combine that skepticism with Trump's bumpy debut in office, and Democrats angered by November's outcome see an early chance to demonstrate their ability to fight back.

"The intensity at the grassroots level here is unprecedented," Ossoff said in a campaign office bustling with volunteers. "It's got very little to do with me, and everything to do with the times that we're living in and the kind of community this is."

The 30-year-old former congressional aide treads carefully in this heavily Republican district. He pledges to hold Trump "accountable" but insists he's open to working with the president on bipartisan priorities such as infrastructure improvements.

Republicans tread carefully, too. Trump retains strong support within his party, especially in the South, even as loyalists grumble about his failure to persuade a friendly Congress to pass his bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.

"We're not seeing anything that says — 'Oh, we got to put somebody up there to stop President Trump,' " said Adam Pipkin, executive director of the Georgia GOP. "What Republicans want is for Congress to start working with the president."

Pipkin dismisses the surge of volunteers and the extraordinary $8 million in donations for Ossoff as imported enthusiasm from Democrats across the country desperate for a victory. But polls show he leads the mostly Republican field of more than a dozen candidates by a wide margin with more than 40 percent of the vote.

If Ossoff can reach 50 percent Tuesday, he'll win the race outright. If not, he'll face a June 20 runoff against the second-place candidate, which polls suggest will be a Republican.

Ossoff's chances would decline sharply in a one-on-one matchup. Trump's personal stake in the race — displayed in an automated phone message to district Republicans and four tweets in the past two days blasting the "super liberal" Democrat as weak on immigration and taxes — underscores the GOP's urgency about generating enthusiasm among core supporters.

"I was glad to see this morning that President Trump has taken interest in the campaign," Ossoff said Monday. "While I don't expect a congratulatory tweet if I win, I will work with anyone in Washington — including him — to get things done for this district."