ROSWELL, Ga. (AP) — Georgia voters steadily streamed into suburban Atlanta polling places Tuesday to decide the most expensive House race in U.S. history and put weeks of television ads, phone calls and ringing doorbells behind them.
Either Republican Karen Handel will claim a seat that’s been in her party’s hands since 1979 or Democrat Jon Ossoff will manage an upset that will rattle Washington ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
As much of the district was drenched by rain and under flash flood warnings, election officials reported few issues at the polls amid steady turnout by early afternoon.
The matchup between Handel and Ossoff in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District has become a proxy for the national political atmosphere and a test of GOP strength early in Donald Trump’s presidency, prompting record-breaking spending.
Tom Greathouse, 52, an auto repair business owner who voted for Handel at a high school in Johns Creek, professed himself “tired of the commercials” but gratified at the attention on the race.
“I think people are actually getting out and saying what they need to say this time, which I think is very important,” Greathouse said.
Attorney David Ware said a belief that health care should be affordable determined his vote for Ossoff.
“I think in the 6th District we have a chance to make a decision about who’s going to lead us whether the president is there or not there, whether his policies are good or bad,” said Ware, 63, an attorney.
Ossoff, 30, is a former congressional staffer turned documentary filmmaker who has become a symbol of the anti-Trump movement. But the first-time candidate barely mentions Trump, talking instead in generalities about “restoring civility” and Congress’ oversight role.
He doesn’t constantly refer directly to Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, instead pitching his “fresh leadership” against “career politicians.”
Handel, 55, embraces her experience as a statewide and local elected official, often telling voters: “You know me.”
She’s also known for being a Susan G. Komen Foundation executive in 2012 when the organization sought to cut off its support of Planned Parenthood.
The affluent and well-educated district has elected Newt Gingrich, the former speaker; Johnny Isakson, now Georgia’s senior U.S. senator; and most recently Tom Price, who resigned in February to join the administration. Trump barely edged Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 6th in November.
Handel has handled Trump gingerly. She barely mentioned him ahead of finishing second to Ossoff in an April primary but welcomed him for a private fundraiser in late April.
That hasn’t stopped Trump from weighing in on the race. Trump tweeted early Tuesday that Ossoff will raise taxes, is weak on crime and “doesn’t even live in district.” Ossoff lives in Atlanta, south of the suburban district. He has said the address is close to Emory University, where his fiancée attends medical school.
Voting technology activists also are keeping a close eye on the Georgia race after new details emerged last week about a security lapse at the center that manages Georgia’s election technology. State officials say they’re confident the technology is secure.
Ossoff raised more than $23 million, most from outside Georgia. He emphasizes it’s mostly from individual donors. Handel notes that many of those people live in Democratic-leaning states.
Handel has benefited from outside money, too. It just hasn’t flowed through her campaign, which has raised $5 million thanks in part to three fundraisers headlined by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee backed by Ryan, has spent $7 million on her behalf. National Republicans’ House campaign arm added $4.5 million, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce chipped in another seven figures.
Democrats have plenty of energy nationally, but it hasn’t translated to the electoral scoreboard. The party needs to flip at least 24 GOP-held seats by next November to reclaim a House majority.
Winning in a traditionally conservative district could improve their chances for a successful 2018, emboldening donors and volunteers nationally. Losing would raise questions about whether Democrats can turn protests and fundraising records into victory.
For Republicans, it’s about defense, with a healthy dose of fear.
Republicans won House special election victories this year in GOP-held districts in Kansas and Montana and hope to add Georgia to that string. Republicans are favored to hold a fourth seat on Tuesday in South Carolina, while Democrats already held their lone open seat in a California special election.
But a loss for Handel would be a warning sign to House Republicans in other suburban districts, many of them among the 23 GOP-held seats where Trump trailed Clinton in 2016.
A little-known political action committee unveiled a last-minute ad trying to link Ossoff to the shooting of a Republican House leader and others at a GOP congressional baseball team practice last week outside Washington.
Handel disavowed the ad, which blames the “violent left” for the shooting. Ossoff called Rep. Steve Scalise’s shooting a “national tragedy” that should not be politicized.