ATLANTA — Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff in a high-stakes special election for a Georgia House seat on Tuesday, denying Democrats their first major victory of the Donald Trump era.
Handel led Ossoff by 4.8 percentage points with more than three-fourths of the 6th District’s precincts having reported their results at 10 p.m. ET, in the most expensive House race in US history.
It was a much closer margin than the 20-plus point wins typically posted by former Rep. Tom Price — whose departure to become Trump’s health and human services secretary created the vacancy.
But it wasn’t what Democrats who pumped $23 million into Ossoff’s campaign so desperately craved: A win.
Handel’s victory showed that even with Republicans in power, the GOP’s message in recent election cycles — focused largely urging voters to reject House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi — remains potent.
The successful execution of that playbook could calm congressional Republicans’ ruffled nerves as the GOP advances major legislation to overhaul the nation’s health care system and eyes a massive reform of its tax structure.
It also calls into question whether Democrats can sustain the energy fueling the party’s anti-Trump resistance after losses in four consecutive special elections — including Kansas, Montana and South Carolina.
At a Hyatt Regency in northern Atlanta, more than 100 Handel supporters packed into the hotel’s ballroom. The crowd was buzzing after Handel’s 8 p.m. appearance onstage to pump up her supporters about early vote numbers — at the time, she was ahead of the GOP’s forecast.
“Everything we’re seeing is incredibly encouraging,” she said.
Otherwise, though, attendees kept an eye on the televisions, which were tuned to Fox News at Handel’s event — and CNN at Ossoff’s election night party nearby.
At Ossoff’s party, the mood was different. “We already have so much to celebrate,” his fiancee told supporters, as the DJ cued “I Will Survive.”
A Republican involved in the race made a point of emphasizing that “there are no moral victories.” The GOP is trying to pre-but potential Democratic arguments that a narrow loss in a district that’s historically been so heavily Republican can in any way can be billed as a success.
In terms of potential voting irregularities and hiccups, DeKalb County extended voting to 7:30 p.m. ET in two precincts after logistical mix-ups with electronic voting machines early in the day. But the Democrat and the Republican involved in the race said they haven’t seen any other signs of trouble.
Ossoff and Handel faced off Tuesday in what has become the most expensive House race in history, with the candidates, their parties and super PACs pouring more than $50 million combined into the effort to win a single House seat in the northern Atlanta suburbs.
More than 140,000 voters cast their ballots early — an astounding number for a special election, and one that nearly matches presidential contests.
The race is being viewed nationally as a gauge of whether Trump’s sagging approval ratings are a drag on Republicans that could threaten the party’s control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections.
Democrats, meanwhile, see in Georgia an early test of their strategy of trying to win typically Republican seats in suburban areas — districts that are relatively highly educated, wealthy and diverse.
Trump weighed in on Twitter late Monday and early Tuesday, attacking Ossoff for living just outside the district, claiming Ossoff will raise taxes and calling Handel a hard worker “who will never give up!”
With the inflated price tag and the 15-month lag time between the special election and the November 2018 midterms, the contest might not hold much predictive value.
But it could be a huge psychic boost for the winner’s party — and a blow for the loser’s.
If Ossoff were to win, Democrats would have a clear victory that could help keep the party’s hyper-engaged base — and donor community — energized. A loss, though, would be a major disappointment.
If Handel were to win, Republicans on Capitol Hill could feel they are on the right track — helping the GOP’s push for health care and tax reform legislation. It could also show House incumbents that they can separate themselves from Trump effectively on the campaign trail, and stave off a potential wave of retirements.
Ossoff and Handel were the top two finishers in an April 19 primary, advancing to the one-on-one runoff election.
The district has historically leaned heavily Republican. Former Rep. Tom Price, whose departure to become Trump’s health and human services secretary led to the special election, won each time he was on the ballot since 2004 with more than 60% of the vote. Mitt Romney carried the district by more than 23 points when he faced former President Barack Obama in 2012.
However, it was Trump’s collapse — besting Hillary Clinton by just 1.5 points in the district in 2016 — that led Democrats to believe it could be in play.
It’s the best shot the party has of the four House special elections this spring to win a seat that now belongs to Republicans. But in November 2018, Democrats are expected to have many better pick-up opportunities. According to the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index, there are 71 Republican-held districts that have less GOP-leaning electorates than Georgia’s 6th District.
Georgia is not the only special election that happened Tuesday. CNN projected just after 9 p.m. ET, Republican Ralph Norman will win the special election in the South Carolina 5th Congressional District, defeating Democrat Archie Parnell in a closer than expected race to fill Mick Mulvaney’s seat.