Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff Tuesday in a special election to fill a Georgia congressional seat, dashing Democrats’ hopes of flipping a House district in order to build momentum ahead of the 2018 midterms.
Polling had been showing a tight race, with several recent surveys showing Ossoff just ahead of Handel. However, a poll released Monday evening had the two candidates neck-and neck. As of Wednesday morning, Handel led Ossoff by just under four points, with all precincts reporting, though the secretary of state has yet to certify the results.
Democrats had hoped that they could harness the anti-Trump energy in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, located in the Atlanta suburbs and brimming with well-educated voters, to take over what had for several decades been a solidly Republican seat. Though now-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price handily won re-election there in November, President Donald Trump only won the district by one point, signaling that the seat could be up for grabs. But Handel’s win suggests Republicans can outrun Trump’s low approval ratings.
Handel began her victory speech Tuesday night by thanking her supporters and her cheerleaders in Republican leadership, including President Donald Trump. She then thanked House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), who was seriously injured last week in a shooting at the congressional Republicans’ baseball practice. Handel thanked Scalise for his support and called for her supporters to “lift up” the injured Republican.
She told the crowd that Americans must “find a more civil way to deal with our disagreements” because “no one should ever feel their life threatened over their political beliefs and position,” adding that that goes for “both sides of the political aisle.”
Handel told her supporters that she is “humbled and honored” to represent the sixth district in Congress, mentioning predecessors like Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA).
She also noted that she will be the first Republican woman to represent Georgia in Congress, which she said reminded her “that anything is possible” with hard work, determination, and support from those who believe in you.
Ossoff delivered his concession speech just before 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night, thanking his supporters and his family. He said that this race showed that voters can make a statement “at a time when politics has been dominated by fear and hatred and scapegoating and division.”
“This is not the outcome many of us were hoping for. But this is the beginning of something much bigger than us,” he said.
The Associated Press called the race for Handel around 10:15 p.m. Tuesday night
Just as the networks began calling the race for Handel around 10 p.m., the House Republicans’ campaign arm sent out a statement congratulating Handel on the win.
“I am thrilled to congratulate Karen Handel on her resounding victory tonight in Georgia’s 6th District,” said National Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Stivers said in a statement. “For all the Democrats’ bluster and despite pouring over $30 million into this race, I couldn’t be more proud to help keep this seat in Republican hands.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) also quickly congratulated Handel.
“Democrats from coast to coast threw everything they had at this race, and Karen would not be defeated,” Ryan said in a statement.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said that while Ossoff lost, the fact that he made the race competitive shows promise for Democrats.
“Although we fell short tonight, it’s important to take a step back and recognize what Jon and the DCCC achieved together. In a very conservative district where Democrats rarely break the mid-30’s and Republicans enjoy a massive registration advantage, Jon and his supporters pushed the race to the limit, vastly outperforming past Democrats in both the primary and the runoff,” DCCC Chair Ben Ray Luján said in a statement.
“There are more than 70 districts more favorable to Democrats than this deep-red district, and Ossoff’s close margin demonstrates the potential for us to compete deep into the battlefield,” he added. “The strong headwinds facing Republicans, incredible grassroots enthusiasm behind Democrats, and a damaged and exposed House Republican Caucus all clarify that we have the momentum heading into 2018.”
Though the race only lasted a few months, it drew intense national scrutiny and record spending. Total spending in the race hit about $50 million with Ossoff raising about $23 million for his own campaign. Handel relied more on spending from outside groups. Both sides flooded the airwaves with political ads, prompting local stations in the area to add news programming to their lineups just to accommodate the flood of advertisements.
After enduring intense campaigning from both sides, voters in Georgia’s sixth district finally trudged to the polls through the rain on Tuesday. The area saw torrential downpour and a flash flood warning was issued for parts of the district.
A former Georgia secretary of state, Handel pitched herself to voters as an experienced politician with deep roots in Georgia. She contrasted herself with Ossoff, who she repeatedly criticized for not living in the district (Ossoff grew up in the district, but currently lives just outside of the district while his fiancee attends medical school). She also tried to appeal to the Republican roots in the district by trying to tie Ossoff to national Democratic bogeymen like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), while Ossoff, for his part, went after Handel over her time at the Susan G. Komen Foundation. As the group’s vice president for public policy, Handel played a role in their decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood.
Handel held a fundraiser with the President in April, but did not associate herself with the Trump much beyond then, presumably due to his unpopularity in the district. However, in the final weeks of the race she brought in Price, Vice President Mike Pence and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor.
Despite Handel’s half-hearted embrace of Trump, the President published tweets early Tuesday morning urging his followers to vote for Handel.
Correction: This post originally stated that Handel said she would be the first woman to represent Georgia in Congress. She said she would be the first Republican woman to represent the state.