Staff raids and social media hijinks: GOP infighting ramps up in Georgia Sixth

There have been staff raids, social media hijinks, scornful advertisements and bitter broadsides. That’s just the start of an escalating battle between Republicans over what could be a sole spot in a runoff to represent a suburban Atlanta district.

As the April 18 special election to replace Tom Price nears, the 11 Republicans in the scrambled field are stepping up their feuds with one another in a fight over a slice of the electorate.

At campaign stops and Republican meet-and-greets across Georgia’s 6th District, they spar over their ties to President Donald Trump and, in hushed tones, warn that their rivals don’t have what it takes to vanquish Democrat Jon Ossoff in a likely June 20 runoff.

 



 

Behind the scenes, they bicker on Twitter over hashtags and trade claims of doctoring Facebook posts and cannibalizing one another’s staffs. And on the airwaves, a roughly $5 million ad blitz includes one memorable spot that depicts the GOP front-runner as a lumbering, bejeweled elephant.

Karen Handel (center), with her husband, Steve Handel (left) as she waits to qualify for the Sixth District congressional seat. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

The Republicans have good reason to step up their attacks. Many voters are just now beginning to tune into a vote that’s less than three weeks away. And the vote, the most competitive congressional election since Trump’s victory, is seen as an early test of the president’s popularity.

All this intraparty squabbling is no surprise in a crowded field of 18 candidates, including 11 Republicans, all appearing on the same ballot. But the infighting risks further fracturing a party already smarting over Trump’s struggles in the opening months of his presidency.

“Look at what’s going on in Washington. All the Republican infighting dismays me,” said Roger Wise, a Roswell retiree and GOP activist. “We need to be unified. Because this Ossoff guy, he has a lot of support.”

Analysts from both parties predict the runoff will come down to Ossoff and a Republican. And much is riding on the GOP contender. The district stretching from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County has been in GOP hands since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, even though Trump struggled to carry it in November.

And as the election nears, they’ll have more chances to throw jabs at each other in person. A series of debates and forums that includes all 18 candidates in the race are planned over the next three weeks, including a forum Wednesday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

‘Drain the swamp’

Smack at the center of many of the swirling attacks is Bob Gray, a former Johns Creek councilman. Hardly known among Georgia politicos before he entered the race, the snowy-haired telecom executive has emerged as a leading Republican contender in poll after poll.

He hired a string of veterans from Trump’s operation, including ex-Trump Georgia campaign manager Brandon Phillips, and he proudly brandishes the president’s banner in a district Trump won by 1 point in November.

“It’s time to stand with President Trump, and I intend to be a willing partner to move this country forward,” Gray said at a recent east Cobb gathering of Republicans. “It’s time to drain the swamp.”

An affable presence on the campaign trail, Gray and his team play a no-holds-barred version of political gamesmanship that has gotten under their rivals’ skin.

His campaign won a bidding war for the staff of another rival, tea party organizer Amy Kremer, after they quit en masse. And it swiped the #takethehill hashtag used by another rival, former state Sen. Judson Hill, in his campaign ads.

Bob Gray claims to be the “drain the swamp” Republican in Georgia’s Sixth District race.

“Bob I have heard of politicians like you stealing yard signs,” Hill remarked on Twitter, “but your stealing my #takethehill is a new low.”

A more ideological fight centers on just how fervently Gray supported Trump during the earliest days of his presidential campaign. Bruce LeVell, another candidate who was head of Trump’s diversity coalition, pointed to a purported social media post from Gray from early last year that was critical of the president.”

“Bob Gray was one of countless snarky nobodies putting out NeverTrump yard signs in 2016,” LeVell said, “while I was in the trenches leading the President’s army to success in Georgia.”

Gray has shrugged off the attacks, and his campaign spokesman, Joash Thomas, on Saturday called the allegations “simply fake and untrue” and pointed to Gray’s work at Trump’s Georgia campaign office as “something that can’t be photo-shopped.”

“We’re focused on defeating the Democrat,” Thomas said, “not any of the candidates polling below Lindsey Graham.”

A pearl-wearing pachyderm

Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, the Republican in the race with the highest profile, faces her own challenges.

She’s the top Republican in many of the polls despite spending no campaign cash yet on TV advertising. But an influential super PAC that’s endorsed Gray has telegraphed a coming attack on her. The Club for Growth in a memo called her “surprisingly weak” and on Tuesday launched an attack ad that cast her as a “big-spending career politician that we can’t trust with our money.”

Former state Sen. Dan Moody in 2007. (Ben Gray / AJC staff)

In the memo, it called Handel “a career politician and perennial candidate with a penchant for losing” and said she “is the wrong person for Republicans to advance to the runoff.”

Another candidate, former state Sen. Dan Moody, included a not-so-subtle dig at Handel in his first campaign ad depicting him with a shovel trailing a pack of donkeys and elephants — including one pachyderm wearing Handel’s signature pearl necklace.

Her campaign has scoffed at the criticism. And she’s taken to wearing an extra strand of pearls at some events to wink at Moody’s ad.

Handel, who has long struggled to raise campaign cash, could soon be forced to dip into her campaign coffers to respond. She’ll get an infusion Wednesday at a fundraiser hosted by former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss and GOP mega-donor Fred Cooper at Cooper’s Buckhead home.

Democrats have happily rushed to present a united front. Although five Democrats are in the race, Democratic voters appear to have largely consolidated behind Ossoff, an investigative filmmaker and former congressional aide who has built a fundraising juggernaut that has raised more than $3.5 million.

With his “Make Trump Furious” campaign, Ossoff is also soaking up much of the national attention with the help of endorsements from U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a string of Hollywood supporters. Actress Alyssa Milano on Monday even ferried Ossoff supporters to the polls on the first day of early voting.

Democrat Jon Ossoff. AP Photo.

The Republican scramble underscores the fight for candidates to distinguish themselves in a wide-open field. Already sharp divides have erupted over some of the nation’s biggest debates, including the failed GOP plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Several of the Trump loyalists, including Gray and LeVell, said they would have voted for the plan. Hill and other contenders opposed the plan, saying it would have been a raw deal for Georgia taxpayers by penalizing the state for refusing to expand the Medicaid program.

“We’ve fallen into politics,” said Kurt Wilson, a Roswell restaurateur whose campaign focuses on a pledge for term limits. “Health care is broken, not health insurance. My vote would have absolutely been no.”

The crowded field has left some contenders, even those with fat bank accounts, scrapping for attention.

David Abroms, a Republican newcomer running as a consensus-builder, talks frequently on the campaign trail about working with Democrats in Washington and being a check on Trump. And he’s pumped $250,000 of his own fortune into his bid for office.

But that message doesn’t always play well at GOP meetings, including a recent debate where he was jeered for not supporting Trump’s plan to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.

The rush of information — and contenders — is a lot for voters to take in. Some 6th District residents say they’re going with the familiar — the candidates they know personally or have met during door-to-door canvassing or have seen on yard signs and in TV ads flooding the area.

“It all comes down to which candidate best reflects the values of a majority of this district,” said Mike Kumpl, a Cobb retiree. “And this is a conservative district that values who we know.”


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