Democrat Jon Ossoff is headed for a June runoff against Republican Karen Handel after falling short of an upset victory Tuesday in the nationally watched special election to represent a suburban Atlanta district in Congress.
The 30-year-old investigative filmmaker aimed for an outright win in the 6th District race, but a furious Republican counterattack joined by President Donald Trump appeared to keep him under 50 percent.
He is set to face Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state who will try to unify Republicans after vicious weeks of internal GOP feuding. Handel expressed confidence Tuesday that Republicans can rally together to thwart the Democrat’s bid.
“Tomorrow, we start the campaign anew,” Handel said. “Beating Ossoff and holding this seat is something that rises above any one person.”
A Democratic victory would be an embarrassing defeat in a district held for decades by Republicans, and Trump’s opponents would cast it as a devastating rebuke to his administration. Republicans downplayed the implications, saying Ossoff benefited from a cocktail of money, national attention and enthusiasm that’s nearly impossible to replicate.
Ossoff would face his own challenges. Despite raising an unprecedented $8.3 million in campaign donations, along with heaps of national attention that made him a face of the Trump resistance, he came up short.
In a speech to supporters just before midnight, Ossoff said the results were “a victory for the ages” and said his campaign will be ready for a second round of votes in June.
“So bring it on,” he said. “Because we are courageous. We are humble. And we know how to fight.”
A former congressional aide, Ossoff's out-of-nowhere campaign and vow to "stand up to Trump" aimed to exploit deep divides among leading Republicans in the 18-candidate field. And he tried to tap into deep voter discontent among young voters and women in the district, which stretches from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County.
Tonya Bookard was the type of voter Ossoff’s campaign longed to attract: a left-leaning Dunwoody resident who said she rarely votes in party primaries or special elections.
“I got texts, I got calls. I got all sorts of reminders,” Bookard said. “They are really working for the vote.”
The White House also vigorously opposed him, with Trump putting his own prestige on the line in the campaign’s closing days. The president sent a flurry of tweets about the race that called Ossoff a “super Liberal Democrat” and slammed media coverage. He also recorded a robo-call criticizing Ossoff.
Still, Trump administration officials insisted the race had little to do with the president.
“I wouldn’t use the word referendum,” Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “I think he hopes to have a Republican elected.”
Ossoff faced steep odds. U.S. Rep. Tom Price routinely won landslide victories until he was tapped as Trump’s health secretary, and John McCain and Mitt Romney easily swept the district in their presidential runs.
Trump, however, vastly underperformed in the district, carrying it by less than 2 points. And his November victory gave the district's left-leaning voters a jolt of energy, with Ossoff becoming their fresh-faced standard-bearer.
The president’s shadow loomed large. Some Republicans ran saying they would be an independent-minded check on Trump, and others promised to be the president’s staunchest ally in Congress.
The highest profile belonged to Handel, who ran unsuccessful campaigns for governor in 2010 and the U.S. Senate in 2014.
She benefited from high name recognition and deep roots in the district, but she was hobbled by attacks from her opponents depicting her as a closet liberal. She ran a no-frills campaign, largely sticking to tried-and-true conservative messaging.
Stephanie DeWitt of east Cobb said she broke toward Handel because she felt the Republican was more pragmatic than other GOP contenders. A potential chance to make history also tugged at her decision — Handel would be Georgia’s first Republican woman in Congress.
“For some, she’s establishment, but she’s a conservative woman,” DeWitt said. “And that’s new for this area.”
A onetime aide to then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, Handel was chairwoman of the Fulton County Commission in the early 2000s before she was elected Georgia’s secretary of state in 2006 — becoming the first Republican to win that office in state history.
She soon set her sights on higher office, but her political career was twice derailed. Her 2010 gubernatorial bid ended in a narrow runoff defeat to Nathan Deal, a bitter rival, and she finished in third place in the 2014 GOP primary for an open U.S. Senate seat.
In between, she became a darling to religious conservatives when she resigned from a leadership role in the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation in 2012 after it reversed its decision to cut ties with the abortion rights group Planned Parenthood. Her book about the episode was called "Planned Bullyhood," and it gave her a national profile.
Three other leading Republicans also jockeyed for the No. 2 spot: Bob Gray ran as a “willing partner” to Trump, Dan Moody as a quiet can-do administrator and Judson Hill as the “proven conservative.”
A Trump fighter
None could match Ossoff’s epic fundraising or the droves of volunteers his campaign marshaled. His events across the district routinely attracted far more supporters than his GOP rivals.
Although his ads played up his willingness to fight Trump, Ossoff struck more moderate tones on the campaign trail. He often talked about cutting wasteful government spending and working with Republicans on a health care overhaul or changes to immigration policy.
His GOP critics claimed he overstated his experience as a former aide to U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a back-bench DeKalb Democrat. And they assailed him for saying the Affordable Care Act should be fixed and not repealed, and for backing a path to citizenship for some immigrants in the country illegally.
Handel vowed to be both a check on Trump and a reliably conservative vote in Congress. She pledged she would vote to repeal Obamacare, crack down on illegal immigration and fight for more funding flexibility for transportation projects.
The race now appears headed for a bruising June 20 runoff, and polls featuring a hypothetical matchup between Handel and Ossoff show a neck-and-neck race. The contest seems destined to remain squarely in the national spotlight.
Some see it as an early barometer for Trump’s popularity, particularly after a Republican candidate in a ruby-red Kansas district won his special election last week by a closer-than-expected margin.
Others cast it as a dry run for the 2018 midterm elections, with Ossoff a model for how Democrats can challenge Republicans in districts once considered reliably conservative.
The June runoff will likely continue the proxy battle between national Republicans and Democrats. A stunning $14 million was spent on advertising in the race, most of it fueled by out-of-state money.
Volunteers from as far afield as California flew in to help Ossoff in the final push, and Trump’s late robo-call was likely just the start of a new wave of national attention that will be showered on the race.