Democrats came up short Tuesday night in their costly bid to wrest control of a longtime GOP congressional seat in the suburbs north of Atlanta, losing a race the party had hoped would showcase deep Republican vulnerability in the Trump era.
Republican Karen Handel, the former secretary of state of Georgia, bested opponent Jon Ossoff 52.6% to 47.4%. The contest had turned into the costliest House race in history, as Democratic activists nationwide sent a surge of donations to political newcomer Ossoff in an attempt to turn blue a district Republicans have controlled since the Carter administration.
The seat was last held by Tom Price, who vacated it to become Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary. While the close election result is sobering for the Republican Party in a conservative district it customarily wins by double digits without much effort, the victory helps the party avert – for now – potentially much more damaging fallout for the White House and Republicans in Congress.
Results as of 11:50 PM
“It’s a huge disappointment for Democrats, who really did put all their eggs in this one basket, feeling as though it was the kind of district – upscale, higher education, higher income voters that went only narrowly for Trump – that if there’s any movement nationally, it should show up,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a veteran nonpartisan elections analyst.
Democrats may also be regretting that they invested so heavily in the Georgia district, but paid little attention to the other congressional special election that took place Tuesday, in the South Carolina district vacated by White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.
Republicans prevailed there – but by a substantially slimmer margin than had been anticipated. In a district Democratic leaders had largely written off as unwinnable, Republican Ralph Norman, a former state representative, edged out his Democratic rival Archie Parnell just 51% to 48%.
But it was the race in Georgia where most of the attention had been focused Tuesday. Among the most concerned about the outcome was Trump himself, who had been attacking Ossoff on Twitter since Monday. Had the seat slipped away from Republicans, Trump was threatened with losing his grip on anxious GOP lawmakers in Congress.
“Donald Trump can breathe a lot easier tomorrow with the knowledge that they came after Republicans hard, with millions of dollars, and Republicans still won,” said Kerwin Swint, a professor of political science at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
Trump congratulated Handel over Twitter, but before he did, he tweeted a thank you to Fox News for declaring the special election was a “huge win” for him and the GOP.
Handel’s victory suggests that despite an erosion of support precipitated by the tumult in Washington, Republicans are not seeing a mass defection of their base. Vulnerable GOP candidates in moderate districts who may be contemplating distancing themselves from the president were likely reassured somewhat by the results Tuesday.
It was a tough night for Democrats. They are desperate for a win, and despite making every effort to keep the expectations of activists measured, failure to notch this victory after all the effort and money poured into the race is likely to lead to a fresh round of soul-searching and a renewed debate over the path the party needs to take to start winning again.
The Democrats’ ability to recruit top-tier candidates for competitive – and even long-shot – congressional seats is undermined by the loss.
Balloting Tuesday was complicated by torrential rain in the area, creating additional worries for the candidates as they scrambled to get out the vote. Strategists pondered how the weather might hurt one side or the other, but it was impossible to gauge in this off-season special election with unprecedented spending, in which all the usual turnout assumptions do not necessarily apply.
Democrats saw an opening in the region after Trump won the district by less than 2 percentage points. They were hoping the effort would chart a path for Democrats nationwide to rebuild their power base in onetime GOP strongholds such as Orange County.
Some $60 million was spent in the Georgia election by the candidates and an assortment of ideological and political outside groups. Ossoff was an unknown even in his district a few months ago, but he surged to national recognition after an endorsement from civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta moved progressives to activate a wildly successful digital fundraising effort on his behalf.
Handel is a former executive at the Susan G. Komen for the Cure charity for breast cancer. She played a major role in that organization’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood — and became a favorite of the right along the way.
In April, the cash infusion for Ossoff, the eagerness of Democrats to consolidate around him and widespread voter anxiety in the district over Trump contributed to a surprisingly strong showing in an open primary. Ossoff won 48% of the vote, just 2 points shy of winning the race outright. Handel split the conservative vote with a few other well-funded Republicans, winning 18%.
But some analysts say that all the money which flooded into the district may have ultimately annoyed voters and played to Handel’s favor.
“If Democrats put this much energy into the district, some Republicans are going to be so turned off that they decide to turn out, even if they hadn’t in the first round,” said David Wasserman, an elections analyst with the Cook Political Report.
Particularly invested in the race had been Californians. More Californians contributed to it than donors from any other state, including Georgia. References to San Francisco played front and center in GOP campaign attacks. Liberal Hollywood celebrities lent their star power.
Handel repeatedly made an issue out of Ossoff’s California money. The Democrat raised nearly $5 for every $1 Handel raised, pushing her to rely heavily on millions of dollars in spending from outside conservative groups, which poured money into the race at more than double the rate of outside liberal groups.
But Ossoff also helped drive the narrative that he was an outsider by choosing to live outside the district. He is a resident of Atlanta, where his girlfriend is finishing medical school. Trump has been attacking the candidate, who grew up in the district, as an outsider.
“Democrat Jon Ossoff, who wants to raise your taxes to the highest level and is weak on crime and security, doesn’t even live in district,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. He did much the same on Monday.
After her victory, Handel struck a conciliatory note to Democrats. “We may have some different beliefs, but we are part of one community. I will work…hard to win your confidence,” she said.
Ossoff said Democrats had put up an impressive fight. “We showed the world that in places where no one thought it was even possible to fight, we could fight,” he said. “This is not the outcome any of us would hope for. But this is the beginning of something much bigger than us.”
GOP operatives in Orange Country watched the race nervously. The demographics in that longtime Republican bastion of Southern California in many ways resemble those of the Georgia district. Democrats have even more momentum in Orange County, which voted for Hillary Clinton in November. The four House Republicans representing the county are among the lawmakers most aggressively targeted for defeat in 2018 by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The committee has moved its West Coast command center, long located in Washington, D.C., out to Irvine.
Political strategists are loath to read too much into the results of special elections, which take place on the off-season and tend to get wrapped up in local issues that don’t necessarily apply to the broader electorate.
“Right now we’re grasping at every straw, every special election, every poll that comes out,” said Rothenberg. “That doesn’t mean a year from now the situation will be identical in this district or anywhere else.”
But amid all the national attention the race received, there is no denying the loss was a dispiriting blow to Democrats.