Republican Karen Handel was the projected winner of Tuesday’s special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, according to CNN, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and NBC. Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff in a traditional GOP stronghold that polling suggested could be in play this time around.
The outcome is especially painful for Democrats who viewed Ossoff’s candidacy as a prime opportunity to land a blow against President Donald Trump.
Handel, a 55-year-old former Georgia secretary of state, replaces Republican Tom Price, who left Congress to become Trump’s secretary of health and human services.
Ossoff, a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker and former congressional aide, was ultimately unable to peel away enough anti-Trump Republicans or mobilize enough new Democratic-leaning voters to overcome the district’s deep-seated Republican leanings.
“It was really all about the Republican candidate Karen Handel getting her Republican base to show up in force,” said Kerwin Swint, chair of the political science department at Kennesaw State University, just outside Atlanta. “That’s what made the difference. Jon Ossoff was successful in eating into that base but obviously not quite enough to put him over the top.”
Until November, it would have been unheard of for Democrats to make a serious run at Georgia’s 6th District. Price won reelection in the largely suburban and affluent stretch of metropolitan Atlanta by 23 percentage points in 2016.
Price’s predecessor in the seat was Sen. Johnny Isakson. Before Isakson, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich held the 6th District seat.
And the district includes a growing population of Latino, Asian and young voters, all of whom are more likely to vote Democratic.
In short, it presented the opportunity to deliver on Clinton’s campaign strategy of picking off just enough educated Republicans fed up with Trump while mobilizing President Barack Obama’s coalition of young voters, liberals and communities of color.
Virtually from the moment Ossoff announced his campaign in January, donations poured in nationally from Democrats livid about Trump and eager to find an outlet for their anger.
Republicans quickly realized they had a fight on their hands and responded in turn.
The result is the most expensive House race in U.S. history, with $51.9 million spent on Ossoff’s and Handel’s bids. The previous record was $29.5 million on a Florida race in 2012.
Georgia uses a nonpartisan primary system in which candidates can avoid a runoff by getting more than 50 percent of the primary vote. Ossoff tried mightily to win outright in the first round of voting on April 18, reasoning that the district’s Republicans were more likely to turn out in a head-to-head matchup. In the end he came up just short, winning 48.1 percent of the vote.
The money, volunteers, celebrity endorsements and attention from top party chieftains kept arriving, though, buoying him to lead Handel by a thin margin in many polls ahead of Tuesday’s race.
In the runup to the first round of voting, Ossoff, a gifted public speaker, took a more partisan approach. His campaign said a vote for Ossoff would “make Donald Trump furious.”
Since then, Ossoff has taken a more moderate route, emphasizing his commitment to bipartisanship, reducing federal spending and investing in high-tech jobs. He has hardly mentioned Trump.
Ossoff even went out of his way to disavow single-payer health insurance coverage and rule out increasing taxes for the rich.
When Handel slipped up, stating during a debate that she did not support increasing the minimum wage to a “livable wage,” Ossoff drew a clear contrast, insisting on his support for a higher minimum wage. But he has declined to say how high he would raise it or to use the issue in any of his ads.
In his campaign’s final ad, the two-minute “Momentum” commercial, Ossoff used Obama-like rhetoric to appeal to the multicultural, global sensibilities of many socially liberal voters.
“Instead of being divided among ourselves, and scapegoating our neighbors and our friends, and being afraid of one another and afraid of the world, we love each other instead, and make things happen together,” Ossoff can be heard saying as images of his campaign flash on the screen.
Many progressive health care advocates viewed a victory for Ossoff as the last line of defense against a Senate bill that is expected to resemble the Obamacare repeal bill passed by the House. The thinking goes that the Georgia election was a referendum on the American Health Care Act, as the House bill is known, and a win for Ossoff would scare enough Senate Republicans into abandoning the effort.
Ossoff condemned the AHCA, which he said “puts Georgians’ lives at risk.” He favored fixing Obamacare through largely unspecified bipartisan solutions.
At the same time, he never quite made Handel’s support for the bill a key focus of his campaign.
One area where Ossoff did not hold back is on Handel’s tenure as a vice president for public policy at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the country’s largest breast cancer charity. In 2012, Handel caused a national scandal when it emerged that she was responsible for pulling Komen’s funding for Planned Parenthood’s breast and cervical cancer screenings due to her personal opposition to abortion, which Planned Parenthood also provides for women. (Handel resigned in response to the uproar over the decision.)
Handel, who raised far less than Ossoff individually, depended heavily on cavalry from Republican political action committees. These outside groups did their best to paint Ossoff as essentially a San Francisco liberal in the mold of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), playing up just how much money Ossoff received from out-of-state donors.
They also attacked Ossoff at every opportunity for living outside of the district.
Even Trump tried it in a series of tweets encouraging voters to turn out for Handel:
Ossoff has always responded that he lives two miles south so his fiancée can be within walking distance of Emory University’s medical school, where she is a student.
Finally, just days before the first ballots were cast, a top Republican in Georgia said he believed the recent shooting that injured Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) in Virginia would help boost Handel to Congress.
“I’ll tell you what: I think the shooting is going to win this election for us,” Brad Carver, the party chairman in Georgia’s 11th congressional district, said.
A right-leaning political action committee also ran an attack ad against Ossoff last weekend that cited the shooting and claimed “the unhinged left is endorsing and applauding shooting Republicans.” The ad continued: “When will it stop? It won’t if Jon Ossoff wins on Tuesday.”
Handel, the Republican candidate, condemned the ad, but never insisted that it be yanked from the airwaves.
It is doubtful that one line of criticism, or even the accumulation of them, did Ossoff in. The fundamentally Republican leaning of the district always meant that Ossoff would have to both win over Republicans and turn out new voters.
But the reasons for the outcome do little to make the results in Georgia any less devastating for Democrats and the so-called resistance movement to Trump, which spared no expense in the race.
Liberal critics are liable to fault Ossoff for campaigning as a centrist rather than emphasizing health care or other progressive economic stances.
They are also likely to question why the party bothered expending so much energy on Georgia’s 6th District rather than a host of other special elections, including Tuesday’s race for South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, which proved surprisingly close, with Republican Ralph Norman defeating Democrat Archie Parnell.
Others still may wonder if Pelosi should remain the party’s leader if Republicans can so easily turn her into a political weapon against Democratic candidates with completely different policy positions.
“Part of it is the Nancy Pelosi thing. Enough Republicans in the district are wary enough of Jon Ossoff and not buying into what he is trying to say: ‘I’m independent, fresh-faced and will fight overspending in Washington, D.C.,’” Swint of Kennesaw State said.
Nick Visser contributed reporting.