WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump's main source of concern in recent days has been abroad, namely the security crisis in North Korea and the complicated situation in Syria, but a domestic political storm has come out of left field and diverted his attention over the weekend.
This was all thanks to Jon Ossoff, a Jewish Democrat threatening to break through formerly unbeatable Republican frontlines in a special Congressional election held in a suburban district just outside of Atlanta, Georgia on Tuesday.
Ossoff, a native of the district, who, prior to running for office, was a documentary filmmaker and a congressional aide, has become an unexpected political hero for the Democrats. "He came out of nowhere," a congressional staffer who worked with Ossoff during his time on the Hill told Haaretz. "If you told me a few years ago that the whole country would be talking about his run for Congress, I wouldn't believe it."
Ossoff's threat became enough of a distraction that the president found time over Easter weekend to put aside his foreign worries to produce a recorded message which was sent to thousands of voters in the Sixth Congressional District of Georgia, which has become the center of all political discussions in Washington.
On election day, Trump also attacked Ossoff on his personal and popular Twitter account, telling his millions of followers that "Democrat Jon Ossoff would be a disaster in Congress. VERY weak on crime and illegal immigration, bad for jobs and wants higher taxes. Say NO."
Home to almost 700,000 people and usually considered a Republican stronghold in a Southern and Red state, the sixth district and Ossoff have, against all odds, become a source of hope for the Democratic Party following a painful loss in the 2016 election - and a crucial test for the Republicans, coming only three months after Trump entered the White House.
While Ossoff has gained attention for the significant support he's received in a traditionally Republican district, the voters who are going to the polls Tuesday will be asked to select one out of almost 20 candidates to represent the District on Capitol Hill. The special election was called after Trump decided to nominate the district's former congressional representative, Tom Price, to a position in his cabinet.
History could have suggested that the special election would be easily carried by the Republican party. "The 6th congressional district has been considered Republican turf for more than a generation," says Tamar Hallerman, a journalist covering politics for Georgia's most widely-read newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2012, Hallerman notes, Republican nominee Mitt Romney carried the district comfortably by a 20% margin in the presidential election.
Yet in 2016, things changed: The 6th district, like many other white-collar and traditionally Republican strongholds across the country, became a fierce battleground. Eventually, Donald Trump barely won it by 1% - a sharp drop from Romney's victory four years earlier. Hallerman points out that the district's coolness towards Trump started as early as the Republican primaries, when it encompassed "much of the small area of the state that Senator Marco Rubio carried" in the March 1st, 2016, primary.
Trump's relative weakness in this district raised hopes for the Democrats that they could snatch it away from the Republicans - and by doing so, send a powerful message ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. The leading Democratic nominee in the special election is Ossoff, who was an unknown political figure when the election got under way. In recent polls, however, he has been receiving around 40% of the vote, putting him as the leading candidate among a fractured field of 18 candidates, including almost ten different Republicans. This surprising situation has created a wave of enthusiasm around his candidacy in Democratic political circles, which has allowed him to raise millions of dollars for his campaign and receive national media attention.
And yet, as Hallerman explains, Ossoff's test on Tuesday will be whether he can receive more than 50% of the vote. If he succeeds, he will win a ticket to Washington, D.C. and send shockwaves through the entire political system. If he doesn't, a second round of voting will take place on June 20th, between Ossoff and the candidate who will receive the second-largest number of votes, most likely Republican Karen Hendel, a former Secretary of State of Georgia, who has been making an effort to distance herself from Trump in order to attract independent and moderate voters.
"I would argue that the GOP comes out a winner if this goes into a second round tonight," Hallerman told Haaretz. "Conventional wisdom is that Republican voters still outnumber Democratic ones in the 6th District and that once there is a single GOP candidate on the ballot, people will unite behind him or her. Republican voters tend to be better at turning out for special elections."
At the same time, she says, if Ossoff gets very close to outright winning, and enters the second round with a strong lead, that could serve to further energize Democrats in the district, and perhaps improve his standing towards the second round. Recent polls show that Ossoff's chances of receiving more than 50% are slim, but experts note that special elections are hard to poll because it is tough to predict the make-up of the electorate.
Daniel Barash, a Democratic political strategist who has worked on dozens of congressional races, told Haaretz that Tuesday's vote outside of Atlanta will mean a lot for the next political battles in Washington. "Tonight we will learn if the anger toward Trump, from Democrats and from college-educated voters, can translate into increased turnout in Congressional elections," he explained.
Noting the slim margin in which Trump carried the district in 2016, Barash added that "If Ossoff wins, he will provide a roadmap for other Democrats running for Congress in 2018. This is the kind of district Democrats must win now if they have any hope of winning back the House of Representatives in 2018. And Democrats have poured big resources there and are hungry for a win."
Trump, well aware of the symbolism of a Democratic victory in a formerly Red district, has enlisted himself to the campaign against Ossoff. In the automatic calls that residents of the district received in recent days, the President is heard warning that "Liberal democrats from outside of Georgia are spending millions and millions of dollars trying to take your Republican congressional seat away from you. Don’t let them do it."
The polling stations in the district will close at 7 P.M. Eastern time (2 A.M. on Wednesday in Israel,) and results are expected shortly afterwards.
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