ATLANTA (AP) -- The scramble to succeed Health Secretary Tom Price as Georgia congressman provides Republicans and Democrats with a trial run for next year's elections, which will center on the popularity and agenda of Price's new boss, President Donald Trump.
Republicans remain confident the northern Atlanta suburbs will stick with their historical voting patterns in the upcoming special election, backing former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Georgia's senior senator, Johnny Isakson, before sending Price to Washington for 12 years. But as in many well-educated suburbs around the country, Trump underperformed typical GOP benchmarks: Price won easy re-election with more than 60 percent of the vote in November, while Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton came to a near draw, neither claiming a majority.
The district, which on average is better educated and wealthier than Georgia and the United States, includes some of the most affluent neighborhoods of Cobb County, northwest of downtown Atlanta, along with several Fulton County suburbs north of the city.
Former congressional aide Jon Ossoff is among the Democratic candidates hoping Trump's perilous standing among moderates and independents gives his party a chance.
"Voters of this district are sophisticated," Ossoff said. "I think the divisiveness of the political atmosphere right now makes people hungrier for candidates who are willing not to play into lowest-common-denominator politics and instead offer solutions."
A crowded Republican field is wide open, with current and former elected officials grappling with whether to embrace Trump wholeheartedly or try to establish independence from the White House. The challenge could be particularly daunting for one potential GOP hopeful: Price's wife, Betty, who now serves in the Georgia General Assembly.
Adding to the mix is a quirk of Georgia election law that makes special congressional elections a "jungle primary" with all candidates on the same ballot, regardless of party. If no candidate wins a majority on April 18, the top two finishers — again regardless of party — would advance to a second ballot set for June 20.
At least a half-dozen Republicans have expressed some interest in the race, including some who possess the personal wealth to boost their own campaigns in an expensive television market.
"I would tell them all to tread very, very carefully," said Republican consultant Chip Lake, who has run previous campaigns for Tom Price. "It's risky aligning yourself with this president, but it's not easy to distance yourself from a figure like him either."
The tightrope is evident in the early campaign maneuvers of state Sen. Judson Hill, perhaps the most visible early Republican candidate. He casts himself as a proven conservative with Georgia values. But his online campaign materials so far make no mention of Trump. The closest he comes to backing the president is "to help HHS Secretary nominee Tom Price repeal and replace Obamacare."
A wealthy former state senator, Dan Moody, mentioned Trump only indirectly in a Monday statement confirming his candidacy. Moody referred to Price as "President Trump's" health secretary. He otherwise stuck to the safe GOP themes of "tax cuts, job creation, repealing Obamacare and shrinking the massive size of the federal government."
Betty Price had yet to announce her intentions early Monday, the first day candidates could officially qualify.
Karen Handel, a well-known figure in Georgia and among social conservatives nationally, has filed campaign paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, but had not announced her campaign. Handel narrowly lost a governor's runoff to now-Gov. Nathan Deal in 2010 and has gained a national profile as a critic of Planned Parenthood.
Democrats, meanwhile, hope to capitalize on anti-Trump energy among liberals and the president's overall lack of popularity.
Georgia's 6th Congressional District has the makeup that helps explain Trump's latest standing in Gallup polling. More than two weeks into his presidency, Trump's job approval rating stood at 37 percent among self-described moderates and 41 percent among independents.
National Democrats' House campaign committee lists the Georgia district among its 59 targeted seats in the 2018 election cycle that will give the party its first significant opportunity to counter recent Republican gains in Congress and U.S. statehouses.
Still, national Democrats have not indicated how much the party actually will invest in the special election, if anything; the district is not among the 20 where the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently placed field staffers.
Ossoff, a 29-year-old Atlanta native, has become a fundraising darling for liberals. An online campaign by the Daily Kos website reports more than $550,000 for his effort. Ossoff has yet to publicly report his own fundraising.
Even as a Democrat, Ossoff may have a needle to thread with Trump. He addressed the Atlanta women's march the day after Trump's inauguration. He emphasizes the importance of congressional oversight in the Trump era. He highlights his support from Rep. John Lewis, a fierce Trump critic who represents the Atlanta-based district immediately south. Lewis said electing Ossoff would "send a clear message that Donald Trump doesn't represent our values."
Yet talking to The Associated Press, Ossoff downplayed the idea that the race should be about Trump.
"I'm not a very partisan guy," he said.