Marietta, GA–The special election for Georgia’s sixth congressional district is the most expensive House race in U.S. history. Both sides have baked a $40 million campaign pie that everyone and their mother within the political consulting class wants a slice of before June 20. For Americans for Prosperity, it’s just a day that ends in “y” regarding the fight for economic freedom, but they too have noticed the impacts of the insane amounts of money that are flooding into the Peach State.
Over the weekend, Townhall sat down with Americans for Prosperity’s Michael Harden, the state director for AFP –Georgia, Candace Carroll, field director, and Tony West, the grassroots director for AFP-Georgia. Harden noted that voters in GA-06, which encompasses the eastern parts of Cobb county, along with the northern slices of Fulton and DeKalb counties, are seeing anywhere from six-to-eight pieces of campaign literature a day. With the massive injection of cash, Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel, on average, are helming a race where $170-180 is being spent to win over a single voter.
Harden said that with that type of dynamic regarding campaign literature, you can only pray that yours will be the one that ends up on top. Concerning AFP, they always factor in donor intent when it comes to expenditure. In other words, how would Joe Voter, who gave to the organization, feel about his money being spent on a specific expenditure? In Georgia, Harden decided that phone calls and door knocks were best for the return on investment at a time where saturation points are becoming a cause for concern on both sides.
I asked Carroll, one of the top performing AFP field directors, to give me a 35,000-foot overview of the typical Ossoff voter. For starters, they’re young; Ossoff is targeting Millennials that are dotting this Republican district well. He’s shown that he’s able to pull people over to his side with a string of ads that portray him as someone concerned with out of control government spending and the war on terror. That ad, which I was able to see in my hotel room before I left for the AFP office, had Ossoff declaring his intention to completely destroy the Islamic State.
Handel’s voters are typically older, over 60 years of age—and they’re social and fiscal conservatives. The only issue is that there appears to be some hesitation to support Handel, some GOP voters are simply not excited about her.
Former Rep. Tom Price, who left to become President Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, garnering anywhere from 99 percent (he ran unopposed in some cycles) to 60+ percent of the vote—it’s odd Handel is struggling. In his last race, Price delivered a 23-point (61/38) trouncing over his Democratic opponent. In some polls, Ossoff is up seven over Handel. Harden explained why this could be the case. First, everyone loves an underdog, which is a moniker that would be attached to any Democrat running here. Second, the outsider mantra is popular. Georgia Sen. David Perdue, a Republican, knows this, having been elected without any prior political experience. Third, Ossoff voters are motivated and they see this election as a referendum on Trump, while Republican voters here see it as merely a special election. That’s a huge enthusiasm gap between the two camps.
The national GOP is hammering Ossoff for not living in the district, but Harden added that 75 percent of the residents who live in GA-06 aren’t historically from here. Harden estimated that about one-third of the residents are second or third generation. It’s a high turnover county, with a technology industry—Google opened an office here—that is attracting younger, more liberal Americans into the area. In short, one can deduce that these residency attacks won't work--and they haven't. One thing that this team agreed on is that Ossoff is getting good advice, which is expected in an off year election that has ballooned into a $40 million race. The best of the Democratic consulting class is here to help Ossoff win. Democrats have conducted a blitzkrieg concerning voter registration drives, and yes—they’re busing people to the polls. In some cases, they’re calling Ubers for voters.
West added a source of frustration with voters he’s encountered, who happen to be Republicans, is the inability for their party to deliver on its promises. He noted that when you don’t pass anything, the story shifts to divisions within the party. Harden also saw this, saying that if the GOP does nothing on its end to deliver on its promises to repeal Obamacare—it will become harder for them to win elections because their base will not mobilize to help them.
So far, we still don’t have a health care reform package passed; tax reform is also MIA. Why even bother to support these people who—in the words of the president—are all talk, no action? It’s a fair observation. Harden warned that more races could become competitive as a result, especially with midterm season upon us.
As we spoke, a die-hard AFP volunteer named Reid, walked into the office, ready to do some door knocks. It’s these people Harden speaks about losing if those in D.C. who say they’re all for repealing Obamacare, but do nothing persists. Reid bluntly said that the only reason he’s there is because he supports AFP, sacrificing a good chunk of his Saturday to help canvass neighborhoods. Still, the frustration of a lack of action could be the reason why Ossoff is garnering 15 percent of GOP voters in the district, which on the margins is enough to win.
With just two percent of the electorate undecided, the debate was nothing special. Being on the far side of the world at the time, all three team members gave an extended pause when I asked how she did. Harden noted that Handel played it safe. She didn’t lose voters, but didn’t gain any either. No hand grenades were thrown; everyone played it safe.
Georgia’s sixth congressional district went for Marco Rubio during the GOP primaries, they’re highly educated, and they’re not fans of Trump. Handel has so far walked a waffled line concerning the president; she hasn’t warmed up to him, but also hasn’t denounced him either.
If we needed any more evidence of a close race with perhaps a tilt to Ossoff https://t.co/ps0G243MBz— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) June 16, 2017
GA-6 in-person voting ends with more than 140k cast so far. It's more than 2x round 1's tally; nearly 3/4 of rnd 1 total vote pic.twitter.com/uNsagslKJk— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) June 17, 2017
These new voters are 1) much likelier to be past GOP voters but, 2) if not, extremely young/nonwhite, recent registrants.— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) June 17, 2017
Our estimate--and it's a rough one without GA-6 polling data--is that, over all, these new voters lean Ossoff by as much as the e.v. overall— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) June 17, 2017
Here's the one thing I'm sold on: turnout will be way higher in rnd 2. Already, 40k have voted who didn't turn out in rnd 1.— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) June 17, 2017
Here's an eye-popping set of GA-6 numbers.— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) June 17, 2017
Fulton County rnd 1: 86k
Fulton rnd 2 early (so far!): 80.5k, of which 23k didn't vote in rnd 1
Here's a rough breakdown of how GA-6 turnout by voting method has shifted since round 1. Early vote much bigger, drawing from GOP eday vote pic.twitter.com/pTAp4efw3q— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) June 18, 2017
Harden also mentioned that the election about is half over already, with 120,000 (Politico has it at 140,000) ballots already cast through early voting. Less than 100,000 votes are projected to be cast on June 20, which means this special election could be the first time that early voting could surpass voting on Election Day ballots. The AFP team added that the first few days of early voting trended heavily Democratic, but Republican early voters have been able to dilute that share. Harden noted that if Tuesday is a sunny day and the 60+year-old voter wants to vote, it could be close. If it rains, the night could be a long one for Handel.
Concerning their data operation, AFP knew this was going to be an expensive race. They weren’t going to sink money into radio, TV, or other media spots. With so many groups here, how can AFP do their part to move the needle for economic freedom? Harden said they went to what they know: grassroots operations. During the regular special election period, they made 40,000 phone calls. Since May, for the runoff phase of this election, they’ve made 50,000 calls. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, on average, 10-20 people come into the AFP-GA office in Marietta and make calls. They get the same amount of volunteers to do door knocks, with one Saturday of the month being slated for their day of action.
With neighborhood canvassing, Georgia voters are able to participate in the runoff even if they didn’t vote on April 18. That was the original election date, but neither Handel or Ossoff was able to get 51 percent of the vote, so it headed into a runoff. These were the people AFP was targeting.
They were confident that pollsters weren’t going to sample them since they were considered unreliable. Another slice of the electorate that they’re targeting are voters who think they can’t vote on June 20 because they didn’t vote on April 18. Historically, Harden said those voters should be sympathetic to conservative issues, especially economic ones. They also number in the tens of thousands. AFP’s data pool is gathered and recalibrated based on responses from neighborhood canvassing and other voter interactions. They acknowledged that big data and consumer-driven reports in discerning how voters lean politically is a good foundation, but boots on the ground is what’s best to reach them. Other data crunchers might have different projections, but these voters, who sat out the April 18 election, coupled with their economic freedom leanings, could be the cohort that saves Handel.
Around 23-25,000 voters from the 120-140,000 early voting figures are folks who didn’t vote in the April 18 election. AFP is hedging that these voters will turn out tomorrow. They’re targeting this slice of the electorate, and Ossoff voters, the most liberal and motivated, definitely voted in April, which overall reduces the chances of reminding the wrong crowd come Election Day. One of the many errors that hamstrung Hillary Clinton’s campaign—and there are many—was that their get out the vote operation might have turned out Trump voters because, to make a long story short, the wires got crossed on GOTV communications.
If there was one observation this team made about Ossoff, it's that either he’s good, or the team he’s working with is giving him excellent advice.
“He’s slick,” said West. “Hard to nail him on much.” Regarding, the controversy over Ossoff’s security clearance, AFP-GA said this was inside the beltway fodder, which, like the attacks on his residency, haven’t had much impact. Now, that’s not to say the issue hasn’t motivated some Republican voters to drift into the Handel camp.
While shadowing a neighborhood canvassing in eastern part of Cobb County with Carroll, we encountered Mr. Stevens, first name not given. After Carroll informed Mr. Stevens that he can vote on Tuesday, along with asking a brief AFP questionnaire about how he feels about tax reform and healthcare—I asked him (I identified myself as a reporter first) if there was any issue that made him want to vote for Handel, given the lack of enthusiasm among voters here about her candidacy.
Mr. Stevens said Ossoff not living here is what made him drift towards Handel. Stevens, a registered Republican, also said he received eight pieces of literature yesterday, though he added that it’s shifted in its political leanings. He was getting all Ossoff’s stuff, but now Handel is overtaking his daily intake of canvassing handouts. He also said that his wife, whose name is Christie, was getting calls from Ossoff’s campaign. We knew the name through the i360 program, which is what AFP uses for door knocks. Mr. Stevens did touch upon what West said about Ossoff, noting that he sounds pragmatic. He also gave us fair warning of a neighbor who is a die-hard Ossoff supporter, who is allegedly housing his canvassers as well.
Harden and the rest of the AFP-GA team would later say that people who live here know Handel, and it’s more of a neutral feeling. Not the best sign when the other side is fired up, ready to use this win to write the epitaph of Donald Trump and congressional Republicans.
While walking with West, the same protocol was followed. He would read the AFP script, re-tabulate the voter profile if someone answered the questionnaire, and I would go to work asking my questions.
We encountered, Mr. Hallberg, first name not given, who said that all of the issues during the 2016 campaign were important to him with this special election. He added that he’s lived in the area for 19 years, and that he’s received way too much campaign literature. The Ossoff residency issue didn’t matter to him, but he did say that as a Republican, Handel just fit his views on politics better. Down the street, Jeff McClure also said that he received “too many” pieces of campaign literature, receiving five to seven pieces total, one from each campaign. McClure is also a Republican and voting for Handel because she’s not Jon Ossoff. That appeared to be the vibe I received from voters. Her candidacy representing a mere shoulder shrug in the sense that she’s not the Democrat, so I’ll vote for her. That’s fine, but usually being the “anti” candidate, Romney was the anti-Obama, Kerry was the anti-Bush, isn’t enough to win an election. Whereas on the other side of town, the Ossoff cohorts are eager to shove this win down Trump’s throat. It was a Saturday and most families were not home, or outright avoiding us, having to be subjected to the solicitations of campaign volunteers for weeks. On door knocks, a 20-25 percent response rate is a good day; it’s 10 percent with phone calls.
While walking in between houses, West laid out the areas that both candidates need to do well in; Handel needs to get every GOP vote in N. Fulton and E. Cobb counties, while Ossoff needs to dominate in DeKalb, the county that is chock full of minority voters. Another issue that could be weighing down Handel is the notion that GOP voters know that their party is semi-serious about repealing Obamacare. Many seem to know that a full repeal is not going to happen. Harden reiterated a voter he encountered who said that he’s sitting this election out because of the lack of progress on Obamacare's repeal.
Another sign of trouble was that on that Saturday, HHS Secretary Tom Price and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue were hosting an event for Handel in DeKalb. Not good if the last 72 hours of your campaign is still trying to shore up the base.
In all, this is a passionate group of economic freedom fighters. AFP has always been this way. Another volunteer, Lew Stafford, joined us while eating lunch to conduct more door knocks. Carroll added that they’ve had people from Greenville, South Carolina drive down to help out. For phones, she said that there’s one woman from Lookout Mountain, about two hours away, who drove in every Tuesday and Thursday to do phone calls all day.
Yet, even with good data and a good volunteer base, it’s all about the candidate. And the vibe I got from voters about Handel is that she’s better than Ossoff because of her party affiliation, but that’s about it. Not much energy. With that, it’s very difficult to skin the electoral cat, but while AFP is hoping for a win on their issues, it’s looking very close as we approach zero hour.
Special elections aren’t the best indicators for how the 2018 midterms will go, but we do know (and we’ve known this for a while) what the Democratic rallying cry will be next year.
Ossoff's closing pitch all about GOP health care plan killing people. This is what Democrats will run on in 2018 ——> https://t.co/Syu0IhFPVe— Jeff Stein (@JStein_Vox) June 18, 2017