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Outside money floods House special elections in Georgia and Montana

Republican Greg Gianforte campaigns for Montana's House of Representatives seat vacated by the appointment of Ryan Zinke to head the Department of Interior on April 22, 2017 in Bozeman, Montana.
William Campbell | Corbis | Getty Images
Republican Greg Gianforte campaigns for Montana's House of Representatives seat vacated by the appointment of Ryan Zinke to head the Department of Interior on April 22, 2017 in Bozeman, Montana.

Political parties and independent groups have unleashed more than $20 million in federal races so far this year, in an early preview of the massive spending that will buffet the 2018 midterm contests for the House.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., tops the organizations active in early races. The group has reported already spending more than $5 million to protect Republican-held House seats in three elections this year, a USA TODAY tally of Federal Election Commission records shows.

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Corry Bliss, the super PAC's executive director, predicts the group will spend a total of $8.6 million on two fast-approaching special elections: the May 25 contest to fill an open House seat in Montana and the June 20 election for the suburban Atlanta seat vacated by House and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. The Georgia race, now down to a runoff between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel, already is on track to be the nation's most expensive House contest.

The leadership fund is looking ahead to the 2018 midterms when all 435 House members are up for re-election and has committed to spending $100 million for those elections — twice its 2016 budget.

Officials also plan to open between 20 and 30 field offices in competitive House races around the country. It's the first time that the super PAC, which can raise unlimited sums, has added a voter-turnout operation to its election arsenal and a sign of the midterm's high stakes for the party.

"We are just getting warmed up," Bliss said of the group's aggressive efforts in special elections.

The president's party generally loses ground in midterm elections, and Republicans are moving early to protect their majority in the House. Democrats need 24 seats to retake the chamber and hope they can capitalize on President Trump's near-record unpopularity and a contentious vote this month in the House to repeal the Affordable Care Act to nab seats from Republicans. Democrats view the upcoming special elections as an early test of party strength.

"The enthusiasm here is off the charts," Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said of the race for the state's at-large House seat.

The seat had been held by Republicans for two decades, and the GOP nominee Greg Gianforte, who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year, is considered the favorite. But recent polls show a tightening race. And the Democratic nominee, musician Rob Quist, recently raised more $500,000 in just four days, Keenan said.

Quist and Gianforte also face Libertarian Mark Wicks in the election to fill the seat vacated by former Montana congressman and current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Democrats face a steep climb in a rural state that Trump won by nearly 21 points last year. In one sign of the race's importance, however, Vice President Pence is set to stump for Gianforte on Friday in Billings, Mont. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has pledged to campaign for Quist.

Seat once held by Newt Gingrich

Democrats and Republicans, however, are training most of their firepower on the special election that is still more than a month away in Georgia. Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide and documentary filmmaker, has raised big sums in his quest for a seat once held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Ossoff collected an eye-popping $8.3 million ahead of the first round of voting in mid-April. He has not yet released fundraising totals for next month's runoff with Handel. But Ossoff's campaign said he took in $500,000 on April 19, the day after his first-place finish in the April 18 special election.

He received 48.1% of that vote, just shy of the 50% needed to capture the seat outright. That forced the June 20 runoff with Handel, the top Republican vote-getter.

The Congressional Leadership Fund spent $3 million in the first round of the Georgia special election and will spend another $3.5 million by Election Day, Bliss said. The super PAC is testing its new field operation in the race, deploying 90 full-time door knockers with the goal of talking to 200,000 additional voters.

Ossoff's team also has assembled a big get-out-the-vote operation of its own, with 150 people working in six field offices, according to his aides.The campaign's staff and volunteers had knocked on more than 250,000 doors ahead of the April 18 primary alone, they said.

The super PAC has sought to cast Ossoff as out of step with Georgians and more in line with national Democratic figures, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

Republicans also have targeted him for living outside the district he hopes to represent. Ossoff has said he and his fiancée Alisha Kramer are temporarily living closer to Atlanta's Emory University, where she is a medical student.

Handel, a former county commissioner, "has lived and worked and accomplished in the district for years and years," Bliss said. "The only thing Jon Ossoff ever did in the district was be born to really rich parents."

Ossoff "knows the district; he grew up in the district, and he's extremely familiar with the issues," countered his spokeswoman Sacha Haworth.

Ossofff's team contends that the leadership fund represents the real outsiders in the race.

Although super PACs have to disclose donors' identities, $3.5 million of the nearly $4.5 million the Congressional Leadership Fund reported raising through March 29 came from its nonprofit arm, the American Action Network, Federal Election Commission records show. The network does not identify its donors.

That shows that Republicans are relying "on anonymous donations of dark money" in their fight to keep the seat, Haworth said.