ROSWELL, Ga. (AP) — Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff on Monday were making their final arguments in the Georgia 6th Congressional District race that offers a potential preview of the 2018 midterm elections.
Handel used an election-eve rally to urge suburban Atlanta Republicans not to be wowed by the attention — and millions of dollars — showered on this House special election.
“We cannot let up. There is too much at stake,” Handel said, acknowledging the white hot spotlight on a contest that has become a proxy for national politics and a test for the GOP early in Donald Trump’s presidency.
Across town, an even more boisterous crowd dominated by millennials chanted “Flip the 6th! Flip the 6th!” as the 30-year-old Ossoff took the microphone.
A former congressional staffer making his first bid for public office, Ossoff has spent the monthslong campaign bouncing between excited Democrats eager to topple Trump and the independents and moderates who are unhappy with Washington yet wary about voting for a Democrat.
On the final night before voting, though, he played to the base.
“Politics does not have to be about fear and hate and deception and division,” he said, avoiding mentioning President Donald Trump directly, as is his custom, but blistering “those cynics in Washington, D.C.”
Then he offered a list of priorities sure to rouse any liberal.
“Together we are going to stand up for the rights of women … for science, clean air and clean water and a climate we can live in,” he said, adding “civil rights and voting rights” and “the LGBT community here in Georgia.”
A gaggle of national and foreign media looked on at both rallies, a testament to how a single congressional seat has become a dominant story in U.S. politics.
Spending in the race could top $50 million, making it the most expensive House contest in U.S. history. Democrats see an opportunity to pick up a seat represented by Republicans since 1979, most recently by the man who now serves as Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary.
More than 140,000 voters have cast early ballots, suggesting total turnout will exceed a typical midterm election.
Democrats need to flip at least 24 GOP-held seats to reclaim a House majority and dent the GOP’s monopoly control in the nation’s capital.
Republicans see an opportunity to squelch Democratic enthusiasm. The GOP already has won House special elections in Montana and Kansas, and the Republican is favored in a South Carolina race Tuesday.
Still, all four of those seats are traditionally Republican. There are 23 other GOP-held House districts, many of them suburban like the Georgia 6th, where Democrat Hillary Clinton topped Trump last November.
Even watching Ossoff push Handel to the limit here would give those incumbents pause.
Trump jumped in the race via Twitter on Monday, writing that Ossoff “can’t even vote … because he doesn’t even live there!”
Ossoff lives in Atlanta, south of the suburban district. Ossoff has said the address is close to Emory University, where his fiancee attends medical school.
Bill Johns, a Handel supporter from East Cobb, said he considers a vote for the GOP candidate a show of support for Trump.
“I think getting her elected helps his position and also gives us a stronger Republican Congress,” Johns, 71, said over a platter of pulled pork.
Handel maintained some distance from Trump in the primary but has fully embraced his support and agenda since, including a joint fundraiser. She and outside groups supporting her campaign have instead tried to link Ossoff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“The people of this district are not from a views and a values standpoint aligned with Nancy Pelosi,” she said Monday.
Ossoff, who once described his bid to take the GOP-controlled district as an opportunity to “make Trump furious,” has since dialed back. Earlier Monday, he downplayed Trump’s role in the race while rallying supporters in Chamblee, but he acknowledged that it’s a motivating force for many supporters.
“There are many in this community, myself among them, who have deep concerns about the direction of things in Washington, about the integrity and competence of this administration,” he said.
Ossoff supporter Karen Langford said she had never volunteered for a political campaign until this year. The 70-year-old retiree said she’s volunteered for Ossoff since March, motivated by her fears about Trump’s election and his approach to health care, immigration and education.
“We let that happen,” she said. “I needed to do something to change it.”
The homestretch scramble was marked by a last-minute ad from a little-known political action committee trying to tie Ossoff’s campaign to the “violent left” and the recent shooting of Republican House Whip Steve Scalise by a man who identified as a liberal.
Handel told reporters Monday that she hadn’t seen the ad. After a reporter described it, Handel called it “disgusting” and said it should come down.
Principled PAC, the organization that produced the ad, had not disclosed its donors before this weekend, when the group unveiled the spot.