The last time Harriet Zoller volunteered for a political campaign, she was too young to vote for the Massachusetts Democrat running for president.
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“I was a Kennedy girl,” she says, smiling back to 1960.
Veronica Savoy’s previous campaign experience was volunteering multiple times for Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee.
“I’m not a political party person,” she explains.
Now, their shared concerns about Donald Trump’s presidency and the Republican agenda on Capitol Hill have drawn both women to the side of 30-year-old Jon Ossoff, an upset-minded Democrat running for Congress in the traditionally conservative Atlanta suburbs.
And the two women are just a small part of what has raised Georgia’s 6th Congressional District special election from a certain GOP victory to an early benchmark for what Americans think about monopoly Republican rule in Washington.
The enthusiasm and high stakes are evident in fundraising and spending totals for Ossoff, Republican candidate Karen Handel, the two major parties and a cacophony of outside groups.
All told, the various interests are on track to raise and spend $30 million or more, making this the priciest House race in U.S. history; meanwhile, voter registration forms continue to pour in ahead of Ossoff’s June 20 matchup with Handel.
Ossoff led the first round of voting with 48 percent among 18 candidates, narrowly missing an outright victory and instead setting up the runoff with Handel.
While Ossoff and Handel both downplay the national tenor of the race, the stated motivations of voters like Zoller and Savoy tell a different story.
“Our democracy really is at stake,” Zoller says flatly, commenting specifically about Ossoff only when asked.
“I’m very pleased with him,” she says.
Zoller and Savoy say their viewpoints crystallized with House Republicans’ recent votes to gut the 2010 Affordable Care Act and the president’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey amid an ongoing investigation of potential ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian operatives.
Savoy says she already backed Ossoff but wasn’t moved to volunteer until seeing House Republicans vote to gut the 2010 health care law.
“That’s absolutely why I’m here,” Savoy said, sitting at one of Ossoff’s campaign offices where a few dozen volunteers made phone calls and gathered in small groups headed to visit voters’ homes.
She described losing her infant daughter at the age of 3 months and her subsequent experiences as a nurse.
“We’ve got to find our humanity,” she says, adding that Americans would suffer under Republican proposals to scale back expansion of Medicaid government insurance and making it easier for insurers to charge higher premiums based on a person’s medical history.
Zoller connected Comey’s firing to her husband’s career as a clerk and later top administrator of the federal judiciary’s 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. “It’s just not normal, not OK,” he says, for the president to go after independent leaders in law enforcement and the judiciary.
Those are the kinds of reactions Democrats want from voters as they look to pick up the 24 seats necessary for a House majority between now and the 2018 midterm elections.
For his part, Ossoff avoids the passionate explanations of his backers, even as he hews to party orthodoxy.
He believes in insurance safeguards for those with pre-existing medical conditions. He called for an independent special prosecutor to lead the Trump-Russia inquiry after Comey’s ouster.
Yet on both topics, he manages to invoke his usual promise to be a “bipartisan voice” in Congress, and “work to solve problems” without party rancor. He will criticize Trump, but he steers clear of mentioning the man he wants to succeed, Tom Price, who resigned to become Trump’s health secretary.
On a recent afternoon as he knocked on supporters’ doors in the Republican stronghold of North Fulton County, where Handel finds some of her strongest backing, Ossoff’s typical introduction didn’t include health care, Trump, Comey or other specific issues.
6th District History
To some degree, that approach is a consequence of the district. Trump barely won the 6th District in November and fell shy of a majority. But it’s a fundamentally Republican jurisdiction. GOP presidential nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain both cleared more than 60 percent of the vote here. Price was re-elected with about 62 percent, and a Republican has held the seat since 1979.
Ossoff needs votes from at least some suburbanites who previously backed Republicans like Romney and Price. Ossoff also may not have to do much to tell liberals and other disaffected voters why they should be energized because they already are.
“We’ve always been here,” Zoller explains of 6th District liberals. “There’s just never been a reason to come together. We’ve never had a Democrat that could win.”