Democrat Jon Ossoff pulled ahead of Republican Karen Handel in the latest poll of a closely-watched Georgia special congressional election after he reported raking in an unprecedented $15 million over the past two months.
But operatives in both parties tracking the race say it has likely changed less than the new Atlanta Journal Constitution poll suggests, and say they still expect a photo finish on June 20.
Polling is tricky in special elections, when turnout is unpredictable. And after months of intense campaigning and airwaves saturated with ads, voters’ opinions are largely set in place.
An advertising arms race between both parties has pushed spending the race north of $35 million, making it the most expensive House race in history as local TV stations add broadcasts to their programming in order to keep up with demand for more room for ads.
Early voting started last week in the race to fill the seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, which has become a national battleground over President Donald Trump and his healthcare plan.
Ossoff and Handel have been locked in more or less a dead heat since the first round of voting in April. But with Trump’s national approval rating falling to new lows, Handel has tumbled a bit locally in the north Atlanta suburbs that make up Georgia's Sixth Congressional District.
The biggest change came in a new Atlanta Journal Constitution poll of likely voters, which found Ossoff leading Handel 51 percent to 44 percent in a district that has long been a conservative stronghold. Crucially, the poll showed Ossoff chipping off 13 percent of Republican voters and winning half of independents.
But instead of celebrating the poll, Democrats involved in the race are privately fretting about it. They’re worried that the millions of liberal donors and activists who have emotionally invested in Ossoff’s campaign will be set up for a major disappointment if he falls short — a very real possibility in a race that party tacticians have always seen as a tossup.
Republicans still outnumber Democrats almost two to one in the district, which Democrats have not won since Jimmy Carter's administration.
And early voting numbers have shown a surge of interest in the race, with analysts saying most of those votes are coming from Republicans areas. “The extraordinary pace has Republicans optimistic they’ve awoken their dormant base,” noted David Wasserman in an analysis for the Cook Political Report.
Regardless, the poll is almost certain to lead to another boost in fundraising for Ossoff.
On Thursday, Ossoff reported raising a jaw-dropping $15 million over the previous two months, bringing his total haul to $23 million.
That makes him one of the most successful congressional fundraisers of all time, despite the truncated length of the race and the fact that Ossoff is a 30-year-old first-time candidate.
Still, Handel reported raising a respectable $4 million. And Republicans have been able to outspend Ossoff’s forces thanks to a flood of money from outside groups like super PACs.
In the closing weeks of the race, outside groups have started making new independent expenditures in the race multiple times a day, according to FEC reports, with over a million dollars in new GOP spending reported within a span of just two hours earlier this week.