Democrat Jon Ossoff often doesn’t mention Donald Trump’s name at campaign events unless pressed by voters or reporters. He doesn’t make much hay about the controversies plaguing the Republican’s young presidency. And he steers well clear of the i-word: impeachment.
For someone once branded by his campaign as a “Make Trump Furious” candidate, Ossoff has stayed away from serrated-edged criticism of the president ahead of the nationally watched June 20 runoff with Republican Karen Handel in the 6th Congressional District.
He typically dodges chances to take a swipe at Trump and clung to a relative silence during the president’s visit to Atlanta in April to stump with Handel. And Ossoff is not running on the latest string of setbacks besetting Trump, saying instead that voters are “tired of partisan rhetoric and interested in solutions.”
It’s Exhibit A of the tightrope act that Ossoff is trying to navigate over Trump as he tries to energize left-leaning voters infuriated by the president without turning off the moderates and independents he’s trying to woo to flip the Republican-leaning territory.
“I don’t know,” he said when asked what a Handel victory would mean for Trump. “I know that folks in the 6th District are interested in effective, open-minded, independent representation that will put the needs of this community above the partisan circus in Washington.”
Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, has left little doubt about her ties to Trump. After months of an arm’s length approach, she wholeheartedly embraced him after landing a spot in the runoff. And she’s taken up his defense after last week’s turmoil, casting a skeptical note about damaging media reports about the president’s missteps.
There soon could be another headline-grabbing reminder of Handel’s links to Trump. Her campaign plans to bring in Vice President Mike Pence for a June 9 visit days before the vote.
A head-turning poll
Both strategies hold risks in a once-reliably Republican seat upended by Trump’s election.
The turf spanning from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County has long been a GOP stronghold, and Tom Price carried it in a string of landslide victories. But Trump struggled mightily in the district, eking out a narrow victory over Hillary Clinton in November’s vote.
Some Republicans worry Trump is taking a toll on Handel’s campaign, particularly after last week’s damaging revelations about the ouster of FBI Director Jim Comey. The Justice Department has now launched an independent inquiry into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in last year’s vote.
A SurveyUSA poll released this week plays into their fears. It shows Ossoff leading Handel 51 percent to 44 percent — his widest advantage yet — and that a slim majority of voters in the district give Trump an unfavorable rating.
But Ossoff’s reluctance to pounce on Trump’s missteps could also alienate Democrats who clamor for red-meat attacks against the president. Nita Carson, a retired professor worried over the president’s vow to repeal the Affordable Care Act, was drawn to Ossoff because of his stand against the Republican.
“This vote will send a message to Trump,” Carson said. “We need a young, energetic progressive in there, and this sends a message to Trump and (U.S. House Speaker) Paul Ryan that things can change fast in Washington.”
‘A gross assumption’
More recently, Ossoff has largely left it to Democratic groups to plaster Trump’s name on flyers targeting left-leaning voters as he tries to maintain an above-the-fray appeal.
His latest TV advertisement, for one, asserts that “both parties in Washington waste too much of your money” — and doesn’t mention that he’s a Democrat.
And while Democrats in solidly blue territory seize on the Comey fallout — Ossoff’s mentor, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, said Comey’s firing reeks of an attempted “cover-up” — the candidate has shied away from such bombast, including calls by some to impeach the president.
“I don’t think we have the information yet to draw that conclusion,” Ossoff said of the impeachment talk. “But we have very good reason for there to be a serious, independent, transparent investigation and for Congress to do its due diligence on a bipartisan basis putting partisan politics aside to get to the truth.”
Handel, too, has applauded the decision to tap former FBI chief Robert Mueller to oversee the probe into Trump’s ties with Russia. And she has echoed Republicans in Congress who have defended the president.
The media reports that Trump shared classified information with Russian officials, she said, are “potentially a gross assumption” by the media. And she pleaded for patience as investigators probe reports that the president pushed Comey to end an investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser.
“I would suggest that all of us would let the process play out and let the facts take us where the facts take us,” she said, adding: “We weren’t in the briefings, and I’m not going to have a rush to judgment until there are facts on the table.”
That message could energize some Trump supporters in the district who didn’t back her in the first round of votes. One of them is Ellen Diehl, a health insurance broker from Chamblee who supported one of Handel’s pro-Trump rivals.
“The 6th District is going to be an example of how the Republican Party should behave across the country,” Diehl said. “We support the Republican candidate, and we shouldn’t have sour grapes. We’ve learned and grown from that.”
Pence expected to campaign with Handel
Vice President Mike Pence plans to stump for Karen Handel’s campaign in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District on June 9, which would make him the latest high-profile Republican to trek to suburban Atlanta in the nationally watched race.
The details for Pence’s visit have yet to be finalized, according to people with knowledge of the plans, though it would come as little surprise. Handel has said she is an “all hands on deck” mode ahead of her June 20 runoff against Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Handel has already landed visits from President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan to help her campaign, which has raised more than $2 million since her second-place finish in the April 18 vote. Over the weekend, U.S. Reps. Will Hurd and Brian Mast also stumped with Handel.
Some Handel supporters see Pence as a more mainstream conservative who can appeal to the district’s Republicans after the GOP infighting in the first round of the vote. Ossoff, meanwhile, has said he’s not concerned with the parade of big-name surrogates backing his opponent.