President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to tap U.S. Rep. Tom Price as his health and human services secretary has triggered a scramble to represent his solidly conservative suburban Atlanta district.
At least six state legislators, a former statewide officeholder, a former state senator, a prominent immigration attorney, an influential Trump backer and several wealthy political newcomers are considering a bid to replace the six-term Roswell Republican.
Some analysts are predicting the race to represent the 6th District, an affluent swath of the Atlanta suburbs that stretches from north DeKalb and Fulton counties to east Cobb County, to be one of the most crowded and expensive special election contests in Georgia history.
“Special elections are the most unpredictable events. You don’t know who the electorate is, and it’s extremely difficult to get people to show up,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist and former aide to Gov. Nathan Deal. “And there’s no front-runner. In a field this big, you have no front-runner until someone writes a giant check.”
The district’s demographics also pose a challenge for the dozen or so potential Republican candidates eyeing the race.
Although Price won his six terms with relative ease, many of the Republicans in the establishment-friendly north Atlanta suburbs spurned Trump. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida won the district in the GOP presidential primary in March, and Trump eked out a razor-thin victory there in November despite carrying the state by 5 percentage points.
“It’s an economically conservative, socially libertarian district on the main,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, a former head of the Georgia GOP. “It’s conservative, but it’s more of a centrist conservatism. They want fewer regulations and fiscal responsibility. But they want the least, the lost and the left behind not to be least and lost and the left behind.”
Republicans are favored to hold the seat, but Democrats vow to field a promising recruit. Several high-profile Democrats live in the district, including state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a U.S. Army veteran and attorney, and state Rep. Taylor Bennett, a onetime Georgia Tech quarterback who narrowly lost a re-election bid this month.
When Holcomb was asked why he thinks his party might have a shot at the open seat, he responded with one word: “Trump.”
“It’s a tough race, but the right candidate could raise all the money necessary,” he elaborated. “The district is not looking for a rubber stamp for Trump.”
The earliest the election could be held is in February, as Price is not likely to resign until he’s confirmed by the U.S. Senate. His confirmation vote is expected in late January, and state law requires the governor to call for a special election at least 30 days after the vacancy opens. If nobody wins a majority of that vote — which is nearly a certainty in a crowded race — then a runoff would be held between the top two finishers.
The jockeying for Price’s seat will color a legislative session already expected to be roiled by battles over “religious liberty” legislation, Second Amendment rights, immigration crackdowns and sweeping health care changes. Sitting lawmakers would have to resign to qualify, but they’d use their platform to push red-meat legislation and rail against their opponents.
State Sen. Brandon Beach, one of three GOP senators interested in the seat, said it’s hard not to consider a run for a seat that typically opens once every decade or so.
“This just happened last night, but I’d be foolish not to look at the opportunity,” said Beach, an Alpharetta Republican who heads the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. “But I’m only interested right now in serving Georgians and making sure we have policy that’s pro-business, less regulations and less taxes.”
A quartet of women are also among the potential contenders for the seat and could make history as the first Republican congresswoman from Georgia.
Former Secretary of State Karen Handel and state Rep. Betty Price, Tom Price’s wife, have tremendous name recognition in the district. And state Rep. Jan Jones is the highest-ranking woman in Georgia GOP politics as the No. 2 in the House chamber. Former Johns Creek Councilwoman Kelly Stewart is also scouting the race.
“I am proud to call Congressman Price a friend and I know he will continue to serve our country well,” Handel said in a statement Tuesday. “Steve and I are humbled by the outpouring of encouragement and we are seriously considering how to best serve the constituents of Georgia’s 6th District.”
Several political newcomers could jump in. Charles Kuck, a prominent immigration attorney, said he was considering a bid. So is Bruce LeVell, a Dunwoody jeweler who headed Trump’s diversity coalition. He said he would claim Trump’s “drain the swamp” mantra and run as a swashbuckling reformer should he get in the race.
And former state Sen. Dan Moody has told several rivals and other political figures that he’s willing to dig deep into his own pockets to run for the open seat, a financial advantage that could set him apart from his rivals.
Just as important is the right message and tone for a district uneasy with Trump that seems unlikely to elect a hard-right conservative. Paul, the Sandy Springs mayor, said he’s hoping voters choose a young conservative with a penchant for working across party lines and building consensus.
“You’ve got to demonstrate you know how to work inside a legislative body to accomplish things, to build coalitions to get things done,” Paul said. “Lone wolves need not apply.”
Here’s a look at the Republican contenders who could jump in the race:
State Sen. John Albers: Elected in 2010, the Roswell telecom executive and volunteer firefighter is a skeptic of MARTA’s expansion and a reliable conservative vote in the Senate.
State Sen. Brandon Beach: The head of the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, Beach is an outspoken supporter of gambling initiatives to raise money for the HOPE scholarship and a pro-transit advocate who fought off a bitter primary challenge from the right against a rival who attacked him for his MARTA support.
Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel: She’s a power broker in north Fulton County, and her campaigns for governor and the U.S. Senate revolved around building support in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. She’s also close to Price’s circle, which could pay dividends if other Price loyalists stay out of the race.
State Sen. Judson Hill: Almost all of Hill’s Senate territory — which stretches from Cobb County to Sandy Springs — is in Price’s district. And Hill, who seems all but guaranteed to run, would try to unite Cobb voters behind him.
Cade Joiner: A onetime College Republican leader who is a small business owner, Joiner would likely run as an outsider.
State Rep. Jan Jones: The Milton lawmaker is the highest-ranking woman in Georgia GOP politics as the House’s speaker pro tem, and she’s been able to cobble together compromises that have helped hold together the GOP’s ever-fractious caucus.
Charles Kuck: A longtime Republican who is a nationally known expert on immigration law, Kuck has been critical of the nation’s patchwork immigration system. He has confirmed his interest in the seat on social media.
Bruce LeVell: As the head of Donald Trump’s diversity coalition, the Dunwoody jeweler might have the biggest claim of any potential candidates to the president-elect’s endorsement. LeVell once led the Gwinnett GOP and served on MARTA’s board for five years, and the Sandy Springs resident would likely wage a Trump-inspired campaign.
State Rep. Chuck Martin: A former Alpharetta mayor, he ran unsuccessfully for House majority leader in 2015 and was one of the leading critics of the state’s tax credit for electric vehicles. He has strong support in the northern reaches of the district.
Former state Sen. Dan Moody: The onetime Roswell politician is also a U.S. Army veteran who served on the state Department of Transportation board. If he jumps in the race, expect to hear about his support for term limits while in the state Senate — and his ability to finance his own campaign.
State Rep. Betty Price: Tom Price’s wife would have tremendous name recognition in the district, and in November she won another term as a state legislator representing a Roswell-based stretch of his district.
Kelly Stewart: The former Johns Creek councilwoman would also likely try to position herself as an outsider who can fund her own campaign.
On the Democratic side:
No high-profile Democrats have indicated they are interested in running, though the district is home to several potential contenders. They include state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a U.S. Army veteran, and state Rep. Taylor Bennett, a former Georgia Tech quarterback who was narrowly defeated in November in his bid for re-election.
ABOUT TOM PRICE
Hometown: Lansing, Mich.
Career: Worked for nearly 20 years as an orthopedic surgeon.
Political career: Served four terms in the Georgia Senate, elected to Congress in 2004
Family: Wife, state Rep. Betty Price, R-Roswell, and a son.
The 6th Congressional District
Here’s a demographic breakdown of U.S. Rep. Tom Price’s district, which stretches from north DeKalb and Fulton counties to east Cobb County:
70 percent white
13 percent black
11 percent Asian
6 percent Other
Median household income: $83,844
15 percent of households make $200,000 or more
59.5 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher
Source: U.S. Census Bureau