Underdog candidates try to stand out in high-profile GA special election

Underdog candidates try to stand out in high-profile GA special election
© Courtesy Abrams / Slotin

Underdog candidates are seeking to stand out in a Georgia special election that has gained national attention as the first competitive race of the President Trump era. 

The race to replace now Health and Human Services Sec. Tom Price in the House has sparked the interest of 18 candidates who will all be competing in a "jungle primary" in April, with a runoff between the top two candidates planned for June 20 if no one candidate gets a majority in the primary 

National Democrats and progressive groups have rallied behind former congressional aide Jon Ossoff. The GOP field, meanwhile, remains more wide open, though former Georgia secretary of State Karen Handel has a slight edge.

Still, underdog candidates like Republican David Abroms and Democrat Ron Slotin are vying to make their marks in the final month of the open-seat race.

Abroms is selling his business and investing his own money to make his first foray into politics. He concedes that he has lower name recognition among a roster of former state politicians. 

But that hasn’t stopped him from competing in the April 18 primary. Abroms has pumped $250,000 of his own money into the campaign and believes his business acumen can be useful to break up the gridlock in Washington, D.C. 

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“It was worth it to shut down my business and put my life on hold and invest my own money so that I could have a chance to try to make a difference in this country,” Abroms told The Hill.

“When you’re in business, you can’t kick the can down the road like politicians do. You have to solve problems.”

Abroms, a Birmingham native who has lived in the Atlanta suburban district since 2009, is a certified public accountant with a company that converts vehicles to run on natural gas. 

While Abroms plans to buy print and radio ads, he said his campaign’s main focus is on ground game — an attractive option in an expensive media market like Atlanta.

“I’m a startup candidate. You have to get creative and you have to be smart, and that’s how I ran my business, that’s how I’m running my campaign, and that’s how I’ll govern,” Abroms said. 

The 11 GOP candidates have charted different paths when it comes to embracing Trump, who won the reliably conservative district by only 1 point. Handel and other candidates like former state Sens. Dan Moody and Judson Hill have all kept some distance from the president.

But other Republican contenders haven’t been shy about tying themselves to Trump. Former councilman Bob Gray has said he’ll be a “willing partner” to Trump and has scored the endorsement of the conservative Club for Growth PAC. Candidate Bruce LeVell, who led Trump’s national diversity coalition, has challenged Gray’s Trump bona fides, calling him a “false prophet” and a member of the #NeverTrump movement.

Abroms, 33, vows that he won’t be a rubberstamp for Trump and Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanFive tax reform issues dividing Republicans GOP leader tempers ObamaCare expectations 8th graders refuse to take photo with Paul Ryan MORE's (R-Wis.) if he’s elected. 

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump marks Memorial Day on Twitter Former NATO envoy: ‘This seems to be the end of an era’ Trump’s defense spending boom that wasn’t MORE is not going to be my boss. Paul Ryan is not going to be my boss,” he said. “I’m going to be responsive to the people of the 6th District and be an independent voice.”

Still, Abroms has to compete with both Republicans and Democratic favorite Ossoff, the 30-year-old investigative filmmaker.

Ossoff has generated excitement beyond Atlanta suburbs, with Democrats seeing the district as fertile ground to test whether anti-Trump backlash can propel them to victory ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

Trump barely eked out a win in the district, but Price has easily won every reelection with at least 60 percent of the vote. Abroms believes Ossoff’s meteoric rise is merely a reaction to Trump’s victory that won’t stop Republicans from keeping the seat.

“To be honest, I think that’s more of a reaction to people on the left’s frustration with President Trump,” Abroms said. “I think Ossoff could make it to the runoff just because the Democrats have consolidated around him and there’s so many Republicans.”

Meanwhile, Democratic hopeful Slotin is also grappling with how to cut through all the noise surrounding Ossoff.

Five Democrats are running for the open seat, but Slotin — a former state senator — is the only one with prior experience in elected office. As the national party coalesces around Ossoff, Slotin chides them for wading into the primary.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) sent nine staffers to the district in support of Ossoff, who attended fundraisers this week in Washington with House Democratic leadership. Progressive groups have raised more than $1 million for his bid. 

“What I can’t understand is why the national Democrats are getting involved in this campaign when there’s five Democrats running,” Slotin said in an interview with The Hill. 

“The DCCC, [liberal political blog] Daily Kos: they don’t know first thing about this district. They are out of touch.”

Slotin, 54, points to his endorsements from local elected officials as an indicator that he’s “breaking through” on the ground. He touted his 15 years of living, working and raising a family in the district.

“What you see is a growing amount of local Democratic support for my campaign,” he said. “People know I’m involved in the community and I can get results for the community and I’ve proved it.” 

Slotin served in the state Senate from 1992 to 1996 when he left to run for Congress. Following his unsuccessful run, he was the publisher of Atlanta Jewish Life magazine. While working at an advertising agency, he helped to create the 2009 entertainment tax credit in Georgia. He’s currently a top executive at an executive search firm in Atlanta. 

“I’ve created more jobs and more economic development than any Republican candidate,” Slotin said, adding that it’s an attribute he believes will draw support from GOP and independent voters. “So I’m trying to take the Democratic Party in a new direction.”

Unlike Ossoff — whose first fundraising email urged supporters to “Make Trump Furious” — Slotin said his campaign isn’t based on attacking the president. Instead, he wants to focus on transportation and education issues as well as job creation. 

“I’m not running an anti-Trump campaign,” Slotin said. “I’m running on what I can do for the district.”

He is already running his first TV ad, and plans two more spots and more mailers. 

With all eyes on Ossoff, Republican candidates have started to look past attacking each other to train their fire instead on the leading Democrat — a sign that they think he’ll make the runoff.

Still, any Democrat that makes the runoff would still be considered a long-shot to win the seat, which has been previously represented by high-profile Republicans like former Speaker Newt Gingrich and now-Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonCongress introduces legislation to reverse Obama’s big labor agenda Overnight Regulation: Appeals court upholds injunction on Trump travel ban | GOP bill would scrap 'micro-unions' Republicans introduce bill to scrap 'micro-unions' MORE.