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High-stakes referendum on Trump takes shape in a Georgia special election

ATLANTA — Taking the stage in a half-filled airplane hangar to rally supporters of Republican candidate Karen Handel, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price could not help but point to the record-shattering surge of liberal money that has flooded into the special House race here.

Handel faces Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democrat and former congressional aide who does not even live in the district.

"The out-of-state money is crazy," said Price, whose vacated congressional seat is up for grabs on Tuesday.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor, was even more direct. "I know some of you out there, some Republicans may even be turned off by our president," said Perdue, before making the case for his boss.

The two Trump Cabinet secretaries, both Georgia Republicans, had unwittingly revealed the twin hurdles standing in Handel's path heading into Tuesday's election: Democratic enthusiasm is soaring across the country while the Republicans who reside in this district are uneasy about what they see in Washington and have mixed views of President Donald Trump.

The hard-fought battle for Price's seat in Atlanta's northern reaches has not only become a financial arms race — by far the most expensive House contest in history — it has evolved into one of the most consequential special elections in decades.

Republicans, weighed down by Trump's growing unpopularity, must demonstrate they can separate themselves from the president enough to hold suburban districts that only now are becoming battlegrounds.

And Democrats are under pressure to show they can notch a victory in the sort of affluent seat they will need in order to take back the House majority.

An outright win in Georgia would serve as validation of the party's overall strategy. Democrats have been recruiting aggressively in Republican-leaning seats — including in Michigan, Illinois and New Jersey — and party officials expect a wave of new challengers to announce their candidacies after the start of the next fundraising quarter in July.

The stakes are highest for Republicans, who have held the district since the Carter administration without much of a challenge. Handel, 55, is a well-known former board chairwoman of the state's most populous county, Fulton, and also a former Georgia secretary of state.

"It's a race that we have to win," said Georgia state Sen. Brandon Beach, a Republican whose district includes part of the terrain being fought on here.

High-stakes referendum on Trump takes shape in a Georgia special election 06/18/17 [Last modified: Sunday, June 18, 2017 8:33pm]
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