The GOP is bracing for the prospect of a loss in Tuesday’s Georgia’s special election that could have far-reaching implications for President Donald Trump and his party’s fortunes in 2018.
As grim confidential polling data circulates among GOP strategists, interviews with nearly two dozen Republican operatives and officials reveal that they are preparing for the possibility of an unnerving defeat that could spur lawmakers to distance themselves from Trump and his already-troubled legislative agenda, and potentially encourage a wave of retirements.
While no one is willing to publicly write off Handel’s chances just yet — Republicans stress that she remains competitive and point to robust GOP early voting figures — several private surveys taken over the last few weeks show Republican nominee Karen Handel trending downward, with one private party poll showing 30-year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff opening up a more than five-point lead in the Republican-oriented, suburban Atlanta seat.
“If we’re losing upper middle class, suburban seats in the South to a 30-year-old progressive liberal, we would be foolish not to be deeply concerned about the possibility that would exist for a tidal wave election for Democrats in 2018,” said Chip Lake, a Georgia-based Republican strategist and former Capitol Hill chief of staff.
Some fear the catalytic effect a GOP loss would have on the Democratic opposition, which has been raising money and recruiting candidates at a breakneck pace since Trump’s inauguration.
“If Ossoff wins, you’re going to see the floodgates open, with Democrats recruiting candidates in races from governor to county commission,” said Randy Evans, an influential Republican National Committeeman from Georgia.
The president shoulders some of the blame for the GOP’s predicament. While Trump has tweeted repeatedly about the race and fundraised for Handel — last week, Vice President Mike Pence was dispatched to the district to appear with Handel — Handel’s fade in the polls has coincided with the ratcheting up of Trump’s Russia-related troubles. According to one private survey provided by a GOP group, Trump’s approval rating in the district has dropped from 54 percent to 45 percent since February, a striking decline for a president who has been in office for less than five months.
Handel, whose team views Trump as something of a drag, has given him a weak embrace. On the campaign trail, the GOP nominee has insisted she isn’t “an extension of the White House.”
At the White House itself, chief of staff Reince Priebus, political director Bill Stepien, and chief strategist Steve Bannon have been closely monitoring the race. During the first round of balloting in April, Bannon kept close track of early voting figures, warned that the Democratic turnout machine shouldn’t be underestimated, and cautioned that the possibility of an Ossoff win shouldn’t be discounted.
On Capitol Hill, where GOP leaders huddled Tuesday with rank-and-file House lawmakers on the second floor of the Capitol Hill Club for a conversation about the Georgia race and the 2018 political environment, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers outlined for the group why the party had spent so heavily in the special election, explaining that the outcome would have an outsize role in shaping the midterm election narrative. To date, the NRCC has spent over $6 million boosting Handel.
Hoping to quell concerns, the Ohio congressman put an optimistic spin on the race. But two people in the room said Stivers also gave an unvarnished assessment of the the party’s chances of holding the seat, walking the lawmakers through the party’s advertising strategy and describing the early vote totals.
At one point during the meeting, Stivers made a plea for members to donate cash, and several volunteered funds on the spot. House Speaker Paul Ryan also spoke, reminding lawmakers that midterms are historically hard for parties in power during a president’s first term and that they needed to prepare for a difficult election cycle.
Regardless of the outcome, Republicans appear to be taking a lesson from the contest: the president’s support is diminishing in some of the key districts that will determine the House’s balance of power — places like Georgia’s 6th District, which is filled with the upper-income and highly-educated suburban voters and was never especially enamored of the president in the first place.
“It defines the kind of district where Trump struggles,” said Whit Ayres, a Handel pollster. “He was never particularly popular, and he hasn’t gotten more so since he was inaugurated.”
Ayres said that Republican voters were more energized now than in April, but argued that Trump’s unpopularity in the district was the primary reason why the race was still close.
After Ossoff failed to win the crowded April primary outright — he fell just short of the 50 percent threshold necessary to win the seat without a runoff — Handel was considered the favorite in a district long held by Republicans. But Ossoff has continued his torrid fundraising pace since then, raking in an eye-popping $23 million total, more than five times as much as Handel.
While Republicans privately lampoon Ossoff’s campaign skills — deriding him as an inexperienced, talking-point driven candidate — they acknowledge his cash advantage has made him a lethal opponent.
"We’re going to find out if a monkey banging cymbals together spending $25 million can get elected," the NRCC’s executive director John Rogers told a group of Capitol Hill chiefs of staff this week, said one person present for the meeting. His meaning was clear to those in attendance: Ossoff might seem like a mechanical candidate, but he had to be taken seriously.
Should Handel lose, it could set off a panic about 2018 that GOP leaders will be compelled to address to avoid setting off a wave of retirements. Some senior Republicans point to 2008 as a possible template. That year, after the party suffered a series of special election defeats, then-House Speaker John Boehner installed a key ally, longtime strategist Ed Brookover, at the NRCC in hopes of quieting concerns.
With the election still days away, some Republicans are already pointing fingers at Handel — a tried-and-true Washington tactic. In the White House, some officials have privately derided her as a frequent candidate for public office who isn’t the kind of fresh face necessary to win. Others are second-guessing her campaign team. During a Sunday appearance on “The Georgia Gang,” a public affairs TV show, longtime party hand and conservative commentator Phil Kent criticized the campaign’s decision to hold a fundraiser instead of a public rally with Pence.
Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a former NRCC chairman, said he was nervous about the Georgia race but felt confident the party had done all it could. The special election, he said, was a reflection of a challenging national environment the GOP was coming to terms with.
“No one here is whistling past the political graveyard and we understand this cycle will be intense, and that it will test our hold on the majority," he said. "We may or may not hold the majority, but it won’t be for lack of effort."