DUNWOODY, Ga. (AP) — Speaker Paul Ryan on Monday implored Georgia voters to vote Republican in next month's special election, linking the Democratic candidate in the surprisingly competitive House race to the California liberal who leads the rival party in the House.
"The left and Nancy Pelosi ... are trying to hit you with an avalanche of television," Ryan said, to drum up support "for a guy who does not share your values."
Ryan delivered the message alongside Republican Karen Handel, saying her opponent, 30-year-old Jon Ossoff, is a liberal in the mold of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Ryan's visit comes amid polls that show a tight race in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, where Ossoff has become a national face for opposition to President Donald Trump.
A Republican has held the Georgia seat since 1979, but now the race is being viewed alongside a May 25 House special election in Montana as a barometer for how Trump and Republicans' monopoly control of Washington are playing with voters back home.
Dozens of protesters gathered outside the rally site ahead of Ryan's appearance, wielding signs and offering chants blasting Trump and Ryan, particularly over the GOP's plans that they say will gut the 2010 health care law.
Democrats need to flip 24 seats to reclaim a House majority and oust Ryan as speaker.
Handel, an established face in Georgia politics as a former secretary of state, typically tries to downplay the national significance of her contest.
But she stuck with the theme Monday, blasting Ossoff as Pelosi's "hand-picked candidate."
"Give me the chance, and I'll work with Speaker Ryan," she said, insisting that Republicans won't allow Pelosi to "steal this seat."
She also emphasized that she has lived and worked in the district, unlike Ossoff, who was raised in the district but now lives in Atlanta, a few miles south of the 6th District line.
That argument appeals to residents like Jim Paine, a former Alpharetta city councilman, who cited Handel's previous elected experience. "She has done it in county government and state government, and she's done it in the district," Paine said, taking a dig at Ossoff, a 30-year-old who lives just south of the district line in Atlanta.
There was one name noticeably missing from the gathering: Trump's. Neither Ryan nor Handel mentioned the president, whose lack of popularity in the district has helped drive Ossoff's campaign.
Trump barely edged Democrat Hillary Clinton here in November, falling shy of a majority. Previous GOP presidential nominees have captured more than 60 percent of the vote across the affluent, well-educated district.
Handel said in an earlier interview that she would have voted with Ryan on the GOP health care bill that Trump champions.
She also said Trump's move to fire James Comey as FBI director was "probably overdue."
Outside the hotel, Rebecca Ferrante said Ryan's actions on the health care bill convinced her to demonstrate. The 60-year-old from Roswell, where Handel lives as well, said consumer protections in the Affordable Care Act are what allows her — a breast cancer survivor and a heart patient — to have medical care.
"Thank God we have insurance and can meet our expenses," she said, "and they want to make that harder, if not impossible."
Handel, who says she and her husband also buy insurance on an Affordable Care Act exchange, argues that patients like Ferrante would still have reliable coverage through subsidized high-risk pools included in the House GOP plan.
Said Ferrante: "I don't trust that. I don't trust them."
The gathering inside was a tightly controlled affair. Registration online was not limited, but Handel aides and volunteers controlled entry. The crowd tilted heavily to Georgia elected officials and local Republican officers and activists.
A Ryan aide said the speaker's office does not dictate attendance and reviews plans only "from a security perspective."
The event comes two weeks after Trump held a fundraiser for Handel while he was in Georgia to address the National Rifle Association.
The candidates, parties and independent groups are on pace to make this one of the most expensive House races with a final tab that could exceed $30 million. A political action committee tied to Ryan and House Republican leaders already has committed more than $5 million, much of it on television ads assailing Ossoff as too liberal for the district.
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