JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — If Jon Ossoff is able to win Tuesday’s congressional election he’ll owe the victory in large part to an army of women in the wealthy Atlanta suburbs, many of whom — driven by guilt over not helping Hillary Clinton enough in 2016 — have spent dozens of hours a week volunteering for the 30-year old Democrat.
Arlene Meyer, 47, a homemaker, said she has knocked on more than 1,500 doors for Ossoff. On Thursday afternoon, Meyer and her friend Cathy Karell, a 56-year-old retail manager, were going around a neighborhood in 89-degree weather to talk to people about Ossoff and make sure they voted.
The week before the election, supporters of both Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel’s believed the race — which polls show as a toss-up — is all about voter turnout.
“Hello is this Fannie? Hi Fannie, my name is Arlene, I’m with the Jon Ossoff campaign and I’m just calling today to see if you were able to get your absentee ballot in?” a peppy Meyer said to a woman through her closed door. “You did? Excellent thank you … Thank you so much for being a voter!”
It’s the most expensive congressional race in history, with the two campaigns spending a total of more than $40 million.
A year ago, people in the sixth district would have laughed had you told them the seat could flip to Democrats. This is the seat former House Speaker Newt Gingrich held in Congress for 20 years. In November, Rep. Tom Price won re-election to the seat by more than 20 percentage points. But when he was selected by President Trump as Secretary of Health and Human Services, Democrats saw their opening.
The race pits 30-year-old Ossoff, a former documentary filmmaker and national security aide for progressive Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., against Handel, the former Georgia secretary of state.
Karell and Meyer had been acquainted before, but they reconnected at a gathering that started with 11 people in a suburban Atlanta living room after the 2016 election, and has been steadily growing since.
“I looked around the room and there were a lot of familiar faces,” Karrell said about the first meeting she attended. “I think we all politely didn’t talk about politics (in the past.) It’s the elephant in the room. Most of us in this area assume that everybody you meet is really a Republican or a conservative and so, you know, who wants to bring that up at a PTA meeting?”
Now, that initial group of 11 has grown into the John’s Creek-Milton Progressive Network, with more than 500 members on Facebook. One hundred and thirty people showed up at their last meeting where Ossoff spoke, according to Meyer.
When USA TODAY asked the candidate about his thoughts on the newfound Democrat community, he said, “I think that what has emerged here is a coalition of people who are interested in leadership that’s committed to them rather than to self or to party.”’
But Republicans point to the fact that the Republican party has the only woman in the race.
“The woman that you want to vote for in this race is the woman with more experience than her male counterpart and is more apt to represent her interests in Washington and that’s Karen Handel,” Darryl Wilson, the GOP chair for the sixth district said. “She’s more qualified and that’s what women want right? They just want the opportunity to be judged by their qualifications and their experience.”
According to Ossoff’s campaign spokeswoman, Sacha Haworth, they’ve had more than 11,000 volunteers and knocked on half a million doors. If you include all the calls and texts they’ve sent, the campaign says they’ve made one million voter contacts. USA TODAY found that at least one potential voter had been contacted at least 15 times, without committing to Ossoff to the campaign.
Handel’s campaign said it wasn’t publicly releasing volunteer and voter contact numbers but the candidate has had a long list of VIP endorsers rallying the troops in her behalf. Vice President Pence came to town, and Price and Agriculture Secretary and former governor Sonny Perdue rallied with her in the final days before the election. Trump has even fundraised on her behalf.
“I’m excited about her as a person, she’s the real deal,” said Wendy Johnson, who describes herself as a Baby Boomer and owns a leadership development business. “I’m also voting against Ossoff and that’s fair too. I don’t believe he has a track record. I don’t believe he’s been in the trenches and worked in the kind of position that he’s about to take over. He’s very young and inexperienced.”
“I like that she served (in politics) … and I have no idea what Jon Ossoff has done, honestly,” said Jason Zimmerman, 38, a business owner who was wearing a Handel sticker at a food truck fair. But Zimmerman, a conservative, conceded that Handel didn’t necessarily excite him as a candidate.
“I would rather vote for my party and who they’re supporting than I would for the opposite party,” he said.
“People are incredibly enthusiastic,” Handel told USA TODAY. “Yes for me, but also for making sure that our next congressman be someone from this district, someone who has the deep relationships and connections that I have here.”
Despite not having the same experience as Handel, Ossoff also does not live in the district he’s running to represent. He told USA TODAY he lives about 10 minutes outside of the district, near the campus where his fiancee is finishing medical school. The way people feel about where he lives depends almost entirely on whether they’re a supporter or not.
“It does not bother me that he does not live in the district,” said Susan McCall, 50, who was at an early vote rally with her son.“I think it’s an issue for them because I think they’re just trying to look for something to criticize him in some way.” McCaul said she actually likes that he’s supporting his fiancee.
Ralph Reed is the founder and head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, and also the former Georgia GOP Chairman. His organization is targeting “100,000 evangelical, pro-life, Catholic and — for lack of a better term — sort of, Trumpian-Tea Party voters” with door knocking, phone calls and other methods. But Reed acknowledges that the election might come down to who’s more excited than which candidate has the most experience.
“Poor Karen, you know, she can’t seem to draw anything but a short straw,” Reed told a group of reporters at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington D.C. in early June. “She’s a very capable woman, she’d be a great member of Congress … but for whatever reason God seems to have ordained that whatever race she runs is going to be battle royale,” he said, referring to previous times Handel had run for office and lost. “Now she draws Jon Ossoff … the left is coming and they’re coming in big numbers. So it’s just a question of if our voters come out, and if they do she’ll win.”