ATLANTA — With Tuesday turning into Wednesday, Democrat Jon Ossoff has fallen short of the majority needed to win outright in the Georgia special election primary and is headed for a June runoff against Republican Karen Handel.
With 88 percent of precincts reporting, Ossoff had 48 percent to Handel’s 20 percent in the 18-candidate field in the 6th District, The Associated Press reported.
One of the most-watched special elections will now continue for another two months. What limited polling exists of that matchup suggests the runoff could be close.
Technical problems in Fulton County, one of three counties that make up the suburban district, delayed the final results. As the clock struck midnight, Ossoff came onstage to address his supporters, telling them it could be a while before the complete results are known but promising to keep fighting.
For Handel, the second-place finish is especially sweet. Tuesday was her birthday. The former Georgia secretary of State was seen as the establishment candidate in the race, but she lost her two previous bids for higher office — for governor in 2010 and the U.S. Senate in 2014.
Voters interviewed at the polls Tuesday afternoon who backed Handel cited her high profile in the state as a strong reason they were supporting her. Former Sen. Saxby Chambliss endorsed Handel, and she benefited from outside spending from Ending Spending Action Fund, a super PAC that backs establishment candidates.
The first-place finish for the 30-year-old Ossoff is a significant victory for Democrats, who didn’t imagine they'd be contesting this district just a few months ago.
But a two-person race in this traditionally GOP district could look much different. Former Rep. Tom Price, who vacated this seat after being confirmed as Health and Human Services secretary, won re-election by 23 points last fall. Republicans see the fundamentals of the 6th District prevailing in the runoff.
Democratic enthusiasm coalesced early in the race behind Ossoff, who raised more than $8 million, mostly from outside the district. With Republican support splintered among 11 candidates, none of the four leading GOP candidates had a reasonable chance of finishing within reach of Ossoff on Tuesday.
But with only one Republican in the runoff, GOP outside groups will be free to spend on Handel’s behalf. Groups like the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House GOP leadership, have already spent millions targeting Ossoff. Expect them to double-down on those attacks, on everything from his résumé to his residency outside the district, while now being able to offer air cover for Handel, whose political consultant is the former executive director of the NRCC.
President Donald Trump, who slammed Ossoff on Twitter in the hours before the election, was apparently also staying up waiting for the election results. He tweeted that making the runoff is a “win” for Republicans and that he was “glad to be of help.” He recorded a robocall Tuesday morning, urging Republicans to turn out to vote.
Handel may have run as more of an establishment Republican compared to a few rivals who described themselves as full-throated Trump loyalists, but even she couldn’t think of any policy areas where she disagreed with the president the day before the election.
A political group supporting Trump, the 45Committee, which has ties to the same donors behind Ending Spending, launched a spot attacking one of those self-described Trump loyalists, Johns Creek city Councilman Bob Gray. In particular, the spot went after Gray because he was endorsed by the Club for Growth, which opposed the GOP health care plan Trump lobbied for.
But it’s Trump's unpopularity in this district that put it on the Democrats’ radar in the first place. Compared to other Republicans, he significantly underperformed last fall, giving Democrats hope this would be the kind of well-educated, suburban district they could pick off in their quest to gain the necessary 24 seats to win a House majority in 2018.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dispatched an eight-person field team early in the race and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on get-out-the-vote operations, specifically targeting African-Americans. The Democrats’ campaign arm also conducted polling and even focus groups — an unusual luxury to have in a House race, let alone a special election.
Democrats maintain they’re engaged here for the long haul, with Ossoff supporters at his election night party adamant that the energy built up over the past few months isn’t going anywhere.
The DCCC has committed to maintain its investment in his field team through the runoff. The Democratic National Committee didn’t back any candidate in the primary, but did invest in GOTV efforts and plans to remain active through June, too.
Ossoff’s candidacy is credited with bringing liberals in this fiscally conservative community out of the closet. Ossoff sees the movement behind him as a bipartisan coalition. Some of his voters, even those who voted for Price in the past, said Tuesday they backed the young Democrat because they didn’t like Trump.
Republicans have attacked Ossoff’s inexperience, but many Ossoff voters on Tuesday mentioned his relative youth as an asset. But whether enough voters in a runoff in this traditionally GOP district will feel that way remains to be seen.
“I think he has a chance,” said one young Democrat leaving the polls Tuesday afternoon. “Which is more than anyone’s had in the past.”