Republican Karen Handel staved off a furious challenge from Democrat Jon Ossoff on Tuesday in a race to represent a suburban Atlanta seat in Congress, as the GOP and President Donald Trump avoided an embarrassing defeat in the most expensive U.S. House contest in history.
A former Georgia secretary of state, Handel emphasized her experience and roots in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District to defeat Ossoff and keep a seat that’s long been held by Republicans in GOP hands. She becomes Georgia’s first female Republican member of the U.S. House.
Her victory, which was wider than many had projected, will be cast as a win for Trump, who campaigned for Handel and hurled a string of antagonizing tweets at Ossoff. And it could buoy jittery GOP incumbents who worry that allying with Trump in competitive districts could doom them.
She overcame stiff opposition from Ossoff, a 30-year-old investigative filmmaker who fast became a rising Democratic star. With a carefully calibrated message, Ossoff shattered fundraising records as he appealed to liberals infuriated by Trump and GOP voters frustrated at Washington gridlock.
His huge fundraising hauls — he raised at least $23 million — kept his message on metro Atlanta’s airwaves and allowed him to target irregular voters and others who rarely cast ballots for Democrats. And a legion of more than 12,000 Ossoff volunteers inundated the district with appeals to vote.
Handel pointed to the work ahead in her victory speech, touching on some of the major issues of the campaign.
“We need to finish the drill on health care,” Handel said. “We’ve got to do a better job for this economy so we can create more jobs and better jobs, and we need to create jobs especially in the small business community.”
“Tonight reminds us, it reminds me, that anything is possible with hard work determination, grit and people who believe in you”
Handel described Ossoff as gracious in his call to her conceding the election.
Ossoff, in giving his concession speech, told his supporters that it was “not the outcome any of us would hope for.” And he also signaled that the fight is not over.
“But this is the beginning of something much bigger than us,” he said. “So thank you — thank you for the most extraordinary experience that I’ve ever had the honor of being a part of.”
Once a fervent anti-establishment candidate, Handel ran in this contest as a traditional conservative voice who backed Trump and his top priorities while saying she won’t be an “extension” of the White House.
She also relentlessly attacked Ossoff as an inexperienced stooge of national Democrats funded by out-of-state interlopers. At every turn, she sought to remind voters that Ossoff lived outside the district and that his values were “3,000 miles away.”
The message worked.
Mary Young of Sandy Springs said Ossoff’s residency outside the district was one of the biggest factors in her vote for Handel, along with the strong financial support he received from donors who live outside the district and outside Georgia.
“There are just too many Californians involved in the situation,” she said.
Handel won the conservative-leaning district, which stretches from the outskirts of Marietta to north DeKalb County, by running up big margins in GOP strongholds in places such as east Cobb County and Milton where Republicans have long thrived.
She also was able to overcome concerns with Trump across the territory. The president only narrowly carried the district in November, and polls showed him with weak approval ratings. But after keeping him at arm’s length early in the race, she aggressively embraced him after she landed a spot in the runoff in April.
The race — which cost more than $50 million — was over little more than a short-term lease to fill the remainder of former U.S. Rep. Tom Price’s term. She’s likely to face another tough Democratic challenger in November 2018, although Ossoff has said he hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll run again.
‘Sleepy affair’ turned into challenge
The seat was vacated after Trump tapped Price to be his health secretary, and it seemed destined to be a somewhat sleepy affair. Price notched a string of landslide victories since his 2004 election, and a slew of big-name Republicans quickly circled what analysts predicted would be an all-GOP runoff.
The biggest name of them all belonged to Handel, a one-time chairwoman of Fulton County’s board who was elected secretary of state in 2006. That was followed by a crushing loss to Nathan Deal in a razor-thin primary runoff for governor, a controversial stint at a breast-cancer charity and a failed 2014 campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat.
But what was expected to be an easy GOP victory in a district that had backed Republicans since 1979 turned into a new challenge for the party. Ossoff netted an unprecedented fundraising haul early in the race, mostly from small-dollar out-of-state donors who were infuriated by Trump’s presidency. He pitched himself as a way to “stand up” to the White House.
Handel and Ossoff sparred at campaign stops and on TV ads across the district. Handel’s campaign, backed by a surge of outside spending from national GOP groups, pummeled Ossoff with attack ads that painted him as a resume-inflating wannabe who would be “dangerous” for the district’s residents.
With an unprecedented fundraising haul, Ossoff countered by slamming her as a “career politician” and offering critiques of what he called her spending excesses while she served in public office.
Along the way, both of their messages morphed. A swashbuckling reformer in past campaigns, Handel embraced tried-and-true conservative messaging and trumpeted her background in government — even the two statewide losses in her last campaigns — as an asset.
And Ossoff scaled back much of his anti-Trump vitriol as the runoff neared, focusing his attacks more on “wasteful spending” and “Washington cynicism” by both parties rather than screeds against Republican leaders. When Trump and Vice President Mike Pence stumped for Handel, Ossoff was notably quiet.
The messages reflect the reality of the district’s demographics. Handel hoped to win the race by focusing exclusively on Republicans, who make up a solid majority of the district’s voters. Ossoff tried to wring out every vote he could from a smaller core of Democrats while seeking to win over a bloc of independents and moderates.
The two were staunchly divided over the biggest debates in Washington. Handel supported the GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, while Ossoff said there needed to be fixes. Handel backed the president’s decision to abandon the Paris climate change accords, Ossoff staunchly opposed it.
Both also sparred throughout the runoff phase over Handel’s short tenure as a vice president for the Susan G. Komen Foundation. She played a central role in the charity’s 2012 decision to cut ties with Planned Parenthood, the health care group that also provides abortions, which prompted a national outcry.
Ossoff called the move “unforgivable” and accused her of forcing her political views on the charity. Handel said it was an effort to “reinvest” money in other groups that can provide mammograms to patients.
Polls showed a tight race in the final weeks of the contest — and a small slice of undecided voters. More than 140,000 voters cast early ballots, and campaign signs sprouted in front lawns of voters who didn’t dare sport a Trump or Hillary Clinton placard last year.
The race took a tenser turn after the ambush of U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise and other Republican legislators at a baseball field in suburban Washington.
Handel and several neighbors received a threatening letter with a white powder that the FBI later deemed to be nonhazardous. Ossoff hired a security detail amid a spate of unspecified threats targeting him. Both condemned an attack ad by a fringe GOP super PAC that sought to politicize the attack.
With all the national attention rocking the race, both candidates tried to focus on local issues in the final stretch. And both dismissed attempts to turn the race into a national bellwether, even as Trump and other national figures waded into the contest.
“We are part of one community, the community of the 6th District,” Handel said after accepting her victory. “My pledge is to be part of the solution to focus on governing, to put my experience to work to help solve the very serious issues we’re facing in this country.”
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
Staff writers Tamar Hallerman, Meris Lutz and Mark Niesse contributed to this article.