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ROSWELL, Georgia — Disappearing into a swarm of TV cameras from as far away as Japan, Republican Karen Handel wanted to make sure they got a good view of the sticker she affixed to her lapel after casting a ballot for herself Tuesday in the most expensive congressional election ever.
“I want you all to see my ‘I voted’ sticker, because Jon Ossoff can’t do that,” Handel said of her Democratic opponent, who grew up here, but lives just outside the district now.
Nearby, Ossoff supporters, including two wearing inflatable dinosaur costumes, tried to drown the GOP hopeful out with chants to “flip the Sixth” — the sixth congressional district — in the final hours of a race cast as a referendum on President Donald Trump.
Handel has tried to paint Ossoff as a pawn of out-of-state liberals, telling Fox News that voters in this Republican-leaning suburban district “are not interested in Hollywood, in California, coming in and buying this seat.”
“Frankly, if this is the best argument my opponents have against me,” Ossoff retorted on MSNBC, “I'm feeling good about the outcome tonight.”
Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional staffer and journalist, has run as pragmatic moderate, with a closing ad that focuses on cutting government waste and talk about “building a coalition bigger than party.”
The questions about his residency, like most of Handel’s attacks, are aimed at giving pause to the Trump-skeptical Republicans and independents who Ossoff needs to win in this heavily GOP district.
"The climate is such right now that the Democrats are very engaged,” said Kay Kirkpatrick, a retired orthopedic surgeon who last month won a special election for the state senate. "My opponent, who was underfunded and inexperienced, was still able to get 43 percent of the vote. The reason that I was able to bring it home was because Republicans showed up.”
Handel supporters have taken to wearing stickers that read, “Republicans who stay home vote to elect Democrats.”
And some Democrats are worried that last week’s shooting of GOP lawmakers on a ballfield outside Washington and a recent threat against Handel will only make it harder for soft-Republicans voters to step outside their comfort zone and vote Democratic, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
An unusually high 140,000 people have already voted early in the race, but torrential rains and flash flood warnings on Tuesday could depress Election Day turnout.
Trump’s unpopularity is the only reason this special election is even competitive in the first place, but neither candidate sees any benefit in talking about him.
"For the umpteenth time,” Handel snapped at a reporter who asked about the president at a Monday event. "I know how desperately you want it be about the president. It is not."
But Trump himself weighed in on the contest on Tuesday morning.
Despite there being zero mention of him at either candidate’s final rallies, Trump remains a unique motivator for the base in both parties, making him a subtle but inescapable presence as the campaigns work to get their supporters to the polls.
Jason Kander, the former Missouri secretary of state, looked around at the volunteers in an Ossoff campaign office in Sandy Springs. “There’s a lot of people in here who have never, prior to January 20, probably ever done anything like this," he said. “The enthusiasm across the country on our side is pretty strong."
“Trump, from a Republican perspective, is going to touch voters that maybe some others haven’t touched,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), who came to stump for Handel.
And for all the talk about Handel running from her party’s leadership, she campaigned with two Cabinet secretaries, a governor, and the No. 2 House Republican in the closing days of the campaign.
Slipping into the quiet backroom of a field office for a break from what he lamentably called “the national circus,” Ossoff told a small group of reporters there were few “nationalizable lessons” to be learned here.
“Despite the obsession with the role of the president in the race, and implications for the president on the race, this campaign has been focused on the daily concerns of voters here,” he said.
But when he appeared before several hundred cheering campaign volunteers that night for his final major campaign event, the candidate spoke in a code that no one in the room had difficulty deciphering.
“We are going to show those cynics in Washington, D.C., who have been peddling hate and fear and deception,” he said.