By the time Georgia voters woke up Wednesday morning, their special House election was already back in overdrive.
Democrat Jon Ossoff, who fell 2 tantalizing percentage points short of outright victory in the primary Tuesday night, raised over $500,000 on Wednesday for a grueling two-month runoff, campaign manager Keenan Pontoni said — the most lucrative day of the campaign so far for Ossoff, already one of the best-funded House candidates ever. Ossoff is putting some of that money on TV immediately, with an ad campaign starting back up Thursday after a one-day break. And the DCCC is jumping in with a half-million dollars on TV, a DCCC source confirmed, as the party tries to keep Republican Karen Handel from unifying GOP voters in the two-month runoff.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan is planning a trip to Georgia to campaign alongside Handel in the next few weeks, according to a Ryan political aide. Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC that has already spent about $3 million hitting Ossoff and turning out conservative-leaning voters, is readying yet more involvement in the race.
In short, the hotly contested House race is rumbling on with barely a pause after Tuesday, as both sides believe they have a genuine inside track on the suburban Atlanta district, a one-time Republican bastion that has evolved into a battleground district in the age of Donald Trump.
“It’s probably going to be the most expensive House seat in U.S. history by the time it’s over,” said Rob Simms, a senior adviser to Handel and former NRCC executive director, predicting that it will also be even more competitive and hard-fought than the primary.
“This is a hard district — period. [But] Ossoff’s got a huge fundraising list, a huge volunteer list and a strong infrastructure already in place. He’s in a strong position to put up this fight,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic consultant.
But Republicans are still confident that Handel will prevail in one-on-one against Ossoff in a traditionally GOP district, casting the Democrat’s performance on Tuesday as “not all that impressive,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.).
“After all Ossoff and the Democrats spent on this race, they got it to about 1 percent more than what Hillary Clinton got in this district,” Collins said. “Doesn’t that say something?”
Indeed, all of the Republicans put together scored a slim majority of the vote on Tuesday night. Handel’s first focus will be to unite her party after a bruising primary process, in which she was the focus of attacks from other GOP candidates. Johns Creek City Councilman Bob Gray, accused her of “never even uttering” the president’s name.
During the primary, Handel approached Trump cautiously, telling POLITICO that her “job” is “not to be an extension of the White House. It is not be a rubber stamp for any one group or another. It is to represent the interests of the 6th District, and I take that very seriously.”
But Trump, who carried the district by just under 2 percentage points in 2016, tweeted Wednesday that he was “glad to be of help” in the “BIG ‘R’ win with runoff in Georgia.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said “we’ll see if we’re needed” when asked at his Wednesday press briefing if Trump would campaign in the district.
“Handel wants to have everyone’s help, and that certainly includes President Trump,” Simms said. “It’s clear that in the response over the last 12 hours that the party is aligning with her, galvanizing and uniting around her. That’s going to be important in June because of the resources that we are going to face on the Democratic side behind Ossoff.”
Meanwhile, Democrats also see signs in the primary results that Ossoff can gain in the runoff.
They saw a spike in participation among left-leaning voters, especially in their friendliest county, DeKalb County. But they will have to identify even more Democrats to bring to the polls to win the runoff, while maintaining the support Ossoff got on Tuesday.
“Ossoff’s team will continue to do what they’ve done — maximize Democratic turnout in every way they can,” said David Mermin, a Democratic pollster who worked with the Ossoff campaign before the primary and is now helping independent-expenditure efforts in the district. “They’ve identified voters who don’t normally turnout tor specials, but they will for Ossoff and for this race.”
The Democratic campaign will also need to keep up the anti-Trump momentum animating their volunteers, who knocked on over 250,000 doors over the course of the primary.
“This has been a field first campaign and that infrastructure doesn’t go away,” said Pontoni, Ossoff’s campaign manager. “We’re just going to keep growing.”
Ossoff will face continuing Republican attacks as he tries to move forward from the primary. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC closely aligned with House Republican leadership, confirmed that they will continue hammering away at Ossoff for the last two months of the race. CLF and the NRCC have spent millions linking Ossoff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — a longtime favorite of GOP ad-makers in traditionally conservative districts like this one. The GOP ads have also criticized Ossoff’s resume as a congressional aide and filmmaker and pointed out that he does not live in the 6th District.
There “will absolutely be a paid component to the CLF presence in voters’ mailboxes and on TV,” said Corry Bliss, CLF’s executive director. The group’s field team also knocked on another 200,000 doors ahead of the runoff. “We are at the beginning, not the end, of educating voters on the real Jon Ossoff,” Bliss added.
Yet as Ossoff deals with the attack ads, Democrats now have one opponent of their own to go after.
Late last week, the DCCC posted research materials on Handel and another top Republican contender online — a way of highlighting preferred attack lines for outside groups advertising in the race. Though Handel has faced intense progressive criticism over her anti-abortion views, the initial attacks highlighted by the DCCC instead focused on spending in Handel’s office when she was Georgia’s secretary of state, including thousands of dollars in travel costs, playing off criticism Handel faced from fellow Republican candidates and outside groups before the primary.
Still, several Democrats said they could later go after Handel’s stance on abortion. In 2012, Handel resigned from Susan G. Komen for the Cure, after she was “widely blamed” for cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood, POLITICO reported. Susan G. Komen for the Cure reversed the decision soon after.
“According to our polling, this is a 60 percent pro-choice district, and Handel has a problematic record with reproductive rights from her time with Susan G. Komen,” Mermin said. “That will come up.”