Litmus test looms for President Trump in Georgia congressional race

Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff speaking to the media during a visit to a campaign office as he runs for Georgia's 6th Congressional District in a special election to replace Tom Price, who is now the secretary of Health and Human Services, on April
Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff speaking to the media during a visit to a campaign office as he runs for Georgia's 6th Congressional District in a special election to replace Tom Price, who is now the secretary of Health and Human Services, on April 17, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Democrats hope a young political novice can score a shock victory in Tuesday's (April 18) election for a Georgia congressional seat long held by Republicans and jumpstart a successful resistance movement against President Donald Trump.

Jon Ossoff, 30, hopes to capitalise on Trump's lacklustre popularity and make the race a litmus test of the president's first 100 days.

He 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.

Should he secure an upset, it would mark a stunning embarrassment for the president and signal that next year's mid-term elections are essentially up for grabs.

But the documentary filmmaker and former congressional aide must upset history first.

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

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

"One day to go and our volunteers are showing up to #FlipThe6th," Ossoff tweeted Monday. "This election is about deciding the things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us."

Under normal circumstances a Republican win would be in little doubt. But Trump's approval rating lags at around 40 per cent in a Gallup tracking poll - a record low for an incoming president.

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

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

If nobody finishes above 50 per cent, 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. This is why 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

Part of what is fuelling Democratic excitement about the race is that while Trump won Georgia by six percentage points, the district that Ossoff seeks to win supported Trump by barely one point over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

It has a large proportion of well-educated voters who are reliably Republican but frustrated by Trump.

The race quickly gained national attention, becoming the 11th most expensive election in House history, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution has reported that Republicans and Democrats have spent a combined US$14 million (S$19.5 million) on ad blitzes to sway the special election.

Hollywood star 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 says. "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.

"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 Monday.

Ossoff is an untested candidate. He praises the grassroots organisers who he said are fuelling support for his campaign and those of other Democrats considering mounting challenges in Trump-friendly territory.

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 27 points.