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Democrats Look To Replace GOP Rep. Tom Price In Georgia Special Election

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Republicans' failure to repeal and replace Obamacare is shaking up a special congressional election in the Atlanta suburbs. At stake is a seat that was vacated by Republican Tom Price, who is now President Trump's secretary of Health and Human Services. His district is one Republicans have held for a generation, but Johnny Kauffman from member station WABE reports Democrats now think they have a chance.

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JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: There are 11 Republicans running for this seat, and they don't agree on what Congress and President Trump should do next about health care. Some of the candidates met for a debate last night in a country club about 45 minutes north of Atlanta. Judson Hill thinks the GOP should try again.

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JUDSON HILL: To stop and not move forward for repeal and replacing Obamacare is wrong.

KAUFFMAN: Both Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan say they want to move on to tax reform. Candidate Kurt Wilson agrees.

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KURT WILSON: Obamacare is going to implode. So I don't think it's the next order of business - is the short answer to the question.

KAUFFMAN: But many of the loyal Republicans in the audience are frustrated that their party seems to have given up on fixing the health care system. Mike Dougherty supports Kurt Wilson and blames Paul Ryan and Republican leaders in Congress for the failed health care plan.

MIKE DOUGHERTY: They're idiots. I mean, I'm sorry. They need to all get out of there and put new people in there.

KAUFFMAN: Dougherty says Republicans should work with Democrats.

DOUGHERTY: Everybody needs a health care plan that we can all get behind - that doesn't rip off the hospital or the doctor, and it doesn't rip off the people that are getting it.

KAUFFMAN: Local Democrats are energized. Voters in this congressional district are better educated and wealthier than in most parts of the country - the kind of voters who turned away from Trump last fall. He did much worse here than past Republican presidential candidates, thanks to people like Thomas Dunn. After years of supporting other GOP candidates, Dunn voted for libertarian Gary Johnson instead of Trump.

THOMAS DUNN: People bought it. You know, they thought they were getting somebody new. And, you know, in reality, they got someone who's probably not competent to handle it.

KAUFFMAN: Meanwhile, many Democrats want to send a message to Trump and Republicans. They've mostly united behind the 30-year-old former congressional staffer Jon Ossoff.

ABBY RITTBERG: He's with us. He's our voice.

KAUFFMAN: Abby Rittberg spent part of a recent weekend knocking on doors for Ossoff. It's the first time she's volunteered for a political campaign. Rittberg likes that Ossoff says he wants to work with Republicans to fix Obamacare. And she wants him to block just about everything Trump tries to do.

RITTBERG: I always think of it as Star Wars. Like, Trump and his administration is like Darth Vader and the Dark Side. And then finally Luke Skywalker's coming along, and we're going to - we're going to fight the bad guys.

KAUFFMAN: Ossoff has raised millions from Democrats nationwide, and Republicans are spending millions of their own highlighting Ossoff's youth. Thomas Dunn, the frustrated Republican, says political experience matters to him. That's why he supports Republican Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, but he's not enthusiastic.

DUNN: I'm not going to give her a cent of my money. I'm not going to make phone calls or even put a sign or a bumper sticker on.

KAUFFMAN: There are 18 candidates in the race, all fighting to stand out. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, there will be a runoff election in June. Dunn says if his candidate doesn't make it into the runoff, he may not even vote. That lack of enthusiasm is something that has Republicans here very worried. For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF NYM SONG, "REDWOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.