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By John Whitesides
SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. (Reuters) - After the crushing electoral losses that swept Donald Trump into the White House and sealed Republican control of the U.S. Congress, the Democrats' road to recovery winds through the leafy, well-heeled suburbs of north Atlanta.
Here, Democrats are threatening a stunning special election upset that could signal how well the party can turn Trump's low approval ratings into political gains. And they appear to have an ally in the April 18 vote: Trump himself.
In the first congressional election of the Trump era, a wave of grassroots anti-Trump fervor has positioned Democrat Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old political newcomer, to possibly capture a House of Representatives seat held by Republicans for decades, one of 24 seats Democrats need nationwide to reclaim the House.
"The grassroots intensity here is electric, and it’s because folks are concerned that what is happening in Washington doesn’t represent our values," Ossoff said in an interview. "This is a chance for this community to stand up and make a statement about what we believe."
With Democrats desperate for signs of hope after Hillary Clinton's loss to Trump, Ossoff's underdog "Make Trump Furious" campaign has endeared him to national anti-Trump activists and pushed him well ahead of 17 rivals in polls. The documentary filmmaker and former congressional aide raised a jaw-dropping $8.3 million in the first quarter, his campaign said.
"I've never seen the Democrats around here so engaged, and it's Donald Trump who got us so engaged," said Carolyn Hadaway, 77, a veteran party activist and retired software engineer from Marietta, a city of about 60,000 people in Georgia’s central Cobb County.
Georgia would seem an unlikely venue for a Democratic revival. Trump won it by about 5 percentage points in November. And its voters backed Republican nominees in eight of the last nine presidential contests, including the last six in a row.
But demographic changes are brewing. Growing minority communities and transplants from other regions have made Atlanta's suburbs increasingly competitive for Democrats. Georgia’s sixth congressional district, the location for April’s special election, exemplifies changes common in booming southern cities like Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville.
The district is white collar, educated and doing well economically, with median household incomes of $80,000 versus $50,000 statewide, and nearly 60 percent of adults holding a college or professional degree, more than twice the statewide average. It is also increasingly diverse, and in recent years became a magnet for well-educated immigrants from India and other parts of Asia.
The district was about 80 percent white at the turn of the century. But since then, the black share of the population has grown from 10 percent to 13 percent, the Hispanic share has doubled to 12.5 percent and Asian representation doubled to more than 10 percent.
About a fifth of the district is now foreign born – twice the statewide average, according to census data.
Though newer immigrants may not be eligible to vote, census data indicate more than 40 percent are naturalized citizens, potentially bringing a different set of views on issues like immigration to the table than the voters in this district who sent Trump adviser and former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to Congress for 10 straight terms.
April’s special election fills the seat vacated by Tom Price, the new secretary of health and human services. It gives both parties a chance to test their messages for election battles next year in suburban districts where Democrats need to make inroads and where Trump's populist economic message did not sell well in November.
While Price sailed to re-election with 62 percent of the vote, Trump barely beat Clinton in Georgia's sixth district by one percentage point. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney beat Democratic President Barack Obama in the district by 23 points.
‘JUMP OVER A CLIFF’
Republican candidates nationwide will closely watch the result as they calculate whether to embrace the president.
The 11 Republicans in the race have split between those who portray themselves as Trump supporters and establishment candidates who keep a respectful and sometimes wary distance.
"I'm ready to support him," former state senator Dan Moody, who was endorsed by U.S. Senator David Perdue, said of Trump in an interview. But "I'm not going to jump over a cliff with him."
Grassroots Democratic groups flood the district's tidy suburban neighborhoods on the weekends, busing in volunteers from as far away as Maryland to go door to door on Ossoff's behalf.
The Ossoff momentum worries Republicans, say party officials, and outside help has arrived. A super PAC aligned with House Republican leaders put more than $2 million into ads painting Ossoff as too young and inexperienced.
Ossoff played down the strategic value of a possible upset.
"The national implications here will be about how this affects the political calculus for folks in the Republican conference in the House, not about how Democrats are supposed to run in the midterms," he said.
‘CONCERN, NOT PANIC’
In a low turnout special election, getting supporters to the polls is vital, and Democrats have voted early in greater numbers than Republicans so far.
"We aren't panicking, but there is concern," said Maggie Holliman, a member of the Republican state executive committee.
Ossoff's best chance is to win the April 18 vote, a "jungle primary" that features all 18 candidates from both parties on the same ballot. If no one reaches 50 percent, the top two vote getters square off on June 20.
Republicans are confident they can win a one-on-one race with Ossoff, as the party unites with organizational and financial help pouring into the Republican-majority district.
"There is a chance Ossoff can win without a runoff, but that's his only chance. He's benefiting from unified Democratic support and Republicans being highly divided," said Georgia-based Republican strategist Joel McElhannon.
Polls show Ossoff hovering in the low 40s, not enough to avoid a runoff. The leading Republican, former Secretary of State Karen Handel, is well behind.
Handel has been cautious in talking about Trump. She said in an interview she expected to work with him on issues such as tax reform and border security, but "first and foremost" she would be a conservative advocate for her district.
By contrast Republicans Bob Gray, a local business executive, and Bruce LeVell, head of Trump's national diversity coalition, pledge undivided loyalty to the White House. Gray said he was the Republican in the race who performed the behind-the-scenes political groundwork for Trump in the district.
LeVell pulled out his cellphone and showed a reporter text messages from Trump aides Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and even Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner to prove his insider status with the White House.
"If people are looking for someone to help Trump, I'm their guy," he said.
(Additional reporting by Howard Schneider in Washington; Editing by Jason Szep and Mary Milliken)