With Georgia race, litmus test looms for Trump

Michael Mathes
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Democrat Jon Ossoff, a former congressional aide, is hoping to wrest away a congressional seat held by Republicans since the 1970s when Georgia's 6th District votes in a special election on Tuesday

A 30-year-old Democrat hopes to capitalize Tuesday on Donald Trump's lackluster popularity by seizing a Georgia congressional seat held by Republicans for decades, in an election seen as a litmus test of the president's first 100 days.

Jon Ossoff is aiming to strike the first blow in what is shaping up to be a bitter, 18-month battle for control of the US Congress in the 2018 elections that come halfway through Trump's presidential term.

But the fresh-faced former congressional aide must upset history first.

Georgia's 6th District is in the relatively affluent and conservative suburbs of Atlanta, and has remained safely Republican since it was won in 1978 by Newt Gingrich, who went on to become speaker of the House of Representatives and led a Republican revolution in the 1990s.

Ossoff is running in a special election there to replace congressman Tom Price, who is now Trump's health secretary.

Under normal circumstances a Republican win would be in little doubt. But Trump's approval rating is lagging at around 40 percent according to a Gallup tracking poll -- a record low for an incoming president -- and Republican state leaders are confronting an enthusiasm gap within their party.

A new Gallup poll shows just 45 percent of Americans think Trump will keep his campaign promises, down from 62 percent who believed he would in early February.

First-time candidate Ossoff leads the race, polling at 42.5 percent -- far distancing the four Republican candidates in the mix, none of whom is drawing more than 17 percent.

If nobody finishes with more than 50 percent, the race goes to a June 20 run-off that is expected to pit Ossoff against one of the Republican hopefuls.

A run-off would likely be close, and should Republicans regroup and coalesce strongly around their candidate they could keep the seat.

So Democrats see Tuesday as their best chance for victory. Ossoff has marshalled an army of volunteers, and reportedly amassed millions of dollars in out-of-state contributions by Democratic groups.

- Trump weighs in -

With the race quickly gaining national attention, it has become the 11th most expensive election in US House history, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Hollywood actor Samuel L. Jackson cut a radio ad urging Democrats to head to the polls in Georgia's 6th District.

"Remember what happened the last time people stayed home," Jackson said in the spot. "We got stuck with Trump. We have to channel the great vengeance and furious anger we have for this administration into votes at the ballot box."

As the contest hung in the balance, the president weighed in on Monday.

"The super Liberal Democrat in the Georgia Congressional race tomorrow wants to protect criminals, allow illegal immigration and raise taxes!" Trump told his 28 million Twitter followers.

Ossoff is an untested candidate whose most visible work has been as an aide to a member of Congress.

He praises the grassroots organizers who he said are fuelling support for his campaign and those of other Democrats considering mounting challenges to Republicans in other states.

"We need to be focused right now on taking back the House. It starts right here in Georgia's 6th District," he told MSNBC last week.

To date Democrats have been unable to translate such energy into tangible election victories in the Trump era.

Last week, a Democrat challenging for an open congressional seat in a deep-red district in Kansas fell short of an upset.

The Democrat lost that race by seven percentage points, but the party sought to spin the result as a positive -- pointing out that Trump won the district in November by a massive 27 points.

If Republicans shed such support in races nationwide next year, Democrats argue, the balance of power could well shift in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Five weeks from now, Democrats will have another shot at snatching a Republican seat, this time in Montana, where congressman Ryan Zinke resigned to become Trump's interior secretary.