With most precincts now reporting, it appears Republican Karen Handel has defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff to represent Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District in a hotly contested special election.
This was the most expensive House race in history (more than $50 million has been spent) and the most eagerly awaited special election this year. Ossoff, a 30-year-old former documentary filmmaker and congressional aide, came in first in Georgia’s “jungle primary” in April, winning 48 percent of the vote in a race against more than a dozen other candidates. But he ultimately did not capture 50 percent, which would have resulted in his direct election without a runoff.
For Democrats, a win in a district that Price last won by more than 20 points would have been huge, and a sign that the Trump resistance is translating into tangible electoral gains. For Republicans, the loss would have been a sure sign that they should worry about the coming midterm elections — and the drastically unpopular health care bill they are quietly trying to push through Congress.
Democrats’ loss, on the other hand, is likely to lead to recriminations about how the party can win in the era of Trump.
Democrats were hopeful going into the race
Recent polling, reviewed by Vox’s Jeff Stein, suggested that Ossoff had a narrow but shrinking lead over Handel, the former Georgia secretary of state. Early-June polls put Ossoff’s lead somewhere between 7 points and 1 point, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling average. The most recent poll, from Fox 5 Atlanta, showed that lead at 1 point.
As FiveThirtyEight reported, Democrats are up by around 7 percentage points in the generic congressional ballot, a metric that's historically been one of the best ways to predict what will happen in House races across the country, and that involves asking voters if they’d prefer a generic Democrat or a generic Republican candidate. This lead, of course, posed a challenge for Handel. But Republicans have held the district since 1979.
The turnout on Tuesday was expected to be significant. As Politico reported, more than 140,000 ballots were cast as of early voting deadline on Friday. In the primary in April, 193,981 ballots were cast in total and in the general election, 326,005 total votes were cast in Georgia’s Sixth.
The major issues in the race have been
Karen Handel cast Jon Ossoff as an outsider, despite the fact that Ossoff grew up in the district (although he doesn’t live there). She’s also alleged that a win for Ossoff would be “a break from the old order.” His campaign is staffed by a diverse cast of millennials, immigrants, and out-of-state transplants, but he began his career in politics working for civil rights icon and longtime Atlanta Rep. John Lewis (D-GA).
Handel is a conservative who supports Republicans’ health care repeal-and-replace effort. A staunch pro-lifer, she resigned as senior vice president of Susan J. Komen for the Cure in 2012 after the foundation decided to resume support for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood. Handel had initially helped persuade Komen’s board to stop grant money to Planned Parenthood in 2011.
Ossoff raised more than $22 million from mostly national grassroots donations, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, setting a new fundraising record in the state. Handel, meanwhile, was backed by the US Chamber of Commerce, President Trump, and the National Republican Congressional Committee in addition to several Super PACs that have poured millions into the race on her behalf.
Ossoff sought to distance himself from establishment figures like Nancy Pelosi, but his efforts to take the House seat, ultimately, were reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s failed path to the White House. As Vox’s Jeff Stein wrote ahead of the race:
His path to Congress remains essentially similar to Clinton’s presumed path to the presidency — relying on the same “new majority” voters that put Obama in the White House. (Clinton only lost the Georgia Sixth by 1 point, which is one reason it has become such a nationally watched race.) One strategy may wind up working better than the other, but the actual demographic composition of who turns out for Democrats is basically the same for Ossoff as it was for Clinton.
The race was also seen as an early referendum on President Trump. A substantial win by Ossoff could have impacted the way Republicans respond to Trump’s health care plans and overall agenda. Trump himself tweeted out his support for Handel on Monday, although he initially misspelled her name.