Outside groups have poured more than $18 million into the special election to fill the House seat left vacant by Tom Price, whom President Trump tapped earlier this year to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.
The race, featuring Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel, is the most expensive House battle in history.
The outside money — for expenses such as television ads and canvassing — is on top of the millions of dollars that the candidates themselves are raising and spending before the special election on June 20.
“It’s not surprising that there’s a ton of money pouring in this race,” said Brandon Hanick of Better Georgia, a large progressive group in the state working to help elect Ossoff.
“More than anything it’s the fact that we’re living for the first few months of essentially a nightmare of a presidency,” Hanick said.
“This is the second major [special] election [this year], and it’s a way to take temperature of the current political climate,” he said. “What we’ve seen from Handel is that she’s unable to criticize Trump about anything.”
Next month’s runoff is a rematch of April’s “jungle primary,” which pit a crowded field of candidates against each other. Since no candidate won a majority of the vote, Ossoff and Handel advanced as the top two candidates for the runoff.
Handel is a former Georgia secretary of State and Ossoff is a 30-year-old CEO of a company that produces investigative coverage for news outlets. He’s a first-time political candidate with some Capitol Hill experience.
Democrats were initially bullish on the prospect of winning the race outright in April, thanks to the Republican field of 11 candidates, an outcome that would have shook the U.S. political sphere. Yet in a disappointing turn for the party, Ossoff fell just short and Republicans won more combined votes than Democrats did.
The runoff set up a two-month sprint to the finish line, which ends on June 20. And both sides are emptying their pocketbooks into the district.
Since April 19, Republican and Democratic outside groups have poured in $9.1 million to help elect their favored candidates.
Working America, the Progressive Turnout Project, Planned Parenthood and the House Democratic campaign arm — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — are among those helping Ossoff with independent expenditures.
Since campaigning for the runoff began, 57 percent of all independent spending has gone to oppose Ossoff.
Many Republican operatives and voters “stood on the sideline” during the primary because of the number of candidates involved, said Eric Tanenblatt, a lobbyist and Georgia state finance chairman for the Republican National Committee.
Now, he added, “I think the Republicans are doing what they needed to do — they consolidated quickly.”
He also has a personal connection: When Tanenblatt was chief of staff for then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), Handel served as deputy chief of staff.
The Congressional Leadership Fund announced a $6.5 million independent expenditure that includes radio and TV ads, but also a door-knocking campaign.
The fund, for which Tanenblatt is helping fundraise, says it wants to reach 200,000 households by Election Day, and another Republican operative said there are 60 people working full-time in the field to conduct that canvassing.
However, Democrats are seizing the chance to flip what has been a reliably Republican seat and set a foreboding tone for the 2018 midterm elections.
“It’s obviously a huge opportunity to flip a seat in the House, but it also speaks to the fact that we have every Republican member of Congress silent as they watch these attacks on our democracy coming from the White House,” Hanick said.
DNC Chairman Tom Perez said that the party is “working to talk to every voter in this district by every possible means and leaving no stone unturned.”
Even though the race has become part of the center of the political hurricane that is 2017, special election turnout is historically low—and special election runoffs typically attract even fewer candidates.
That makes the turnout and registration game even more important. So the ground-game investment, coupled with a recent court ruling that extended the district’s voter registration deadline, is encouraging to optimistic Democrats.
The June 20 date could be a challenge in Georgia, as the beginning of the summer heat sets in, children are out of school and families go on vacation.
“That date is a legitimate risk for Karen Handel because this is the most educated, and top 10 most affluent Republican districts in the country. A lot of Republican-leaning voters will be on vacation,” said Garrett, who ran many of Isakson’s wining campaigns.
These last four months, he said, should be focused on absentee ballots and early voting while people are still in town.
There’s also the “Trump effect,” which Democratic operatives hope will end up sinking Handel. President Trump raised $750,000 for her at an event the end of April, where he jokingly turned to her and said, “You’d better win.”