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Georgia Special Election Headed To Runoff As Republicans Avoid Nightmare Scenario

Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to his supporters as votes continue to be counted in the race for Georgia's 6th Congressional District on Tuesday in Atlanta. Early Wednesday the race was projected to head to a runoff.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to his supporters as votes continue to be counted in the race for Georgia's 6th Congressional District on Tuesday in Atlanta. Early Wednesday the race was projected to head to a runoff.

Updated at 2:08 a.m.

Republicans escaped a potentially brutal loss on Tuesday night — for now — by forcing a runoff in a closely watched Georgia special congressional election.

Democrat Jon Ossoff would fall just short of the 50 percent needed to win outright in the crowded 18-way all-party primary, the Associated Press projected early Wednesday. Ossoff, a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker and former congressional staffer, instead will face off against Republican and former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel on June 20.

The race to replace now-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price attracted national attention as Democrats tried to turn it into a referendum on President Trump.

"There is no doubt that this is already a victory for the ages," Ossoff told a rowdy group of supporters gathered at his election night party just before midnight at the Crowne Plaza in Dunwoody.

"We will be ready to fight on and win in June if necessary," the Democratic candidate insisted, conceding that the vote tally may not be finalized for some time.

"So bring it on. Because we are courageous, we are humble and we know how to fight."

Progressives from across the country flocked to Ossoff's aid, helping him raise over $8.3 million and building an army of volunteers in hopes of delivering a knockout punch in the first round. In recent days, the Democratic candidate said he still believed that was possible.

Democrats, however, privately maintained such a feat would be hard, given the crowded field and the history of the district. Even though this is an area that Trump carried by less than 2 points in November — after Mitt Romney won it handily in 2012 — Price won re-election easily each year. This is also territory once represented by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Republicans have a better chance to win now that the race becomes more of a traditional two-party contest. Democrats, meanwhile, will have to continue to keep their base motivated and engaged for what's a decidedly more difficult climb.

Still, this is the type of district Democrats need to be competitive in to win back the House in next year's midterms. The rapidly growing Northern Atlanta suburbs are a diverse, highly educated area that saw a big shift away from Republicans on the presidential level. There are plenty of areas that are more Democrat-friendly for the party to win the 24 seats needed to take back the House in 2018, but an outright victory by Ossoff would have been a major boon to their fundraising and recruiting.

Keeping Ossoff below 50 percent had been the GOP's primary goal, and they poured in over $4 million to attack him in the race's closing weeks, hitting him for allegedly inflating his resume and tying him to national Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The Republicans' strategy seemed to work. Ossoff appeared to have built up a big lead early on in the night, but as totals trickled in, his share of the vote kept dropping.

"The myth of Jon Ossoff died tonight. Despite a heavy advertising advantage and a national stream of unlimited resources, Jon Ossoff's Hollywood-focused campaign finished no better than Hillary Clinton's," Congressional Leadership Fund Executive Director Corry Bliss said in a statement. The superPAC aligned with House GOP leadership spent about $3 million on a heavy advertising blitz attacking Ossoff.

Ossoff will now face off against Handel, who emerged as the second top vote-getter, ahead of 10 other GOP candidates. She easily bested rivals, like Johns Creek City Councilman Bob Gray, who ran as an explicitly pro-Trump candidate but was a distant third as the night wore on. State Sen. Judson Hill, endorsed by Gingrich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, was in fourth place.

While Handel has said she thinks Trump is doing a good job, she didn't exactly wear her support for him on her sleeve. That distance could help her in the runoff if Democrats continue their anti-Trump message.

Handel is familiar to voters in the district. She served as chairwoman of the Fulton County Commission, in the most Republican part of the district, and she ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for governor in 2010 and for Senate in 2014.

But Republicans in the area would have to unite to get voters back out in June after a fractious primary, with many of them attacking Handel as an out-of-touch politician. Georgia GOP officials have maintained the party will come together, and Handel struck a note of unity when addressing her supporters Tuesday night.

"Tomorrow, we start the campaign anew," she said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Beating Ossoff and holding this seat is something that rises above any one person."

Democrats, however, argue that Handel must now combat high negatives from her two statewide races.

"After successfully weathering $4.2 million in television smear attacks from D.C. Republicans, Jon Ossoff can finally draw a contrast between his vision for Atlanta's high-tech future and Karen Handel's background as a career politician with a history of wasteful spending," the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wrote in a memo.

For Ossoff now, the challenge will be keeping up the momentum he has built. Moving forward, the race is likely to break fundraising records and will probably attract even more money from outside the district and state.

While Ossoff's massive haul was impressive, Republicans were quick to point out that 95 percent of that came from outside the state, buoyed by progressive blogs like Daily Kos and fundraising platforms like ActBlue.

Celebrities tweeted support for him and donated to his campaign, actress Alyssa Milano drove voters to the polls during early voting and actor Samuel L. Jackson cut a radio ad in support of Ossoff in the closing days.

With the Georgia election's unusual contours — an 18-way primary and a GOP field split among 11 candidates — Ossoff soon rose to the top of the pack. Even though there were five other Democrats in the race, major local Democratic figures lined up early behind him, including neighboring Reps. Hank Johnson and John Lewis, and the national party apparatus soon followed.

With his plush campaign coffers, Ossoff was able to blanket the local airwaves, running ads that both called out Trump and promised to stand up to the president. But others struck a decidedly more centrist tone, talking about how he wanted to cut wasteful spending, boost infrastructure investment and attract new tech jobs to the area.

And while it was clear many of his supporters saw his candidacy as a way to send a shockwave to the Trump White House, Ossoff himself rarely mentioned the president directly. Still, the message he delivered to volunteers over the weekend was clear.

"The eyes of the whole nation are on us. The eyes of the world are on us," he said at a canvass launch in Sandy Springs on Saturday afternoon. "And it's a rare chance for us to stand up and make a statement about what we stand for, and to prove that we believe in a country that is decent and kind, compassionate, courageous and tough, that we reject fear and division, that we stand together in all of our diversity, working for a better community here, and a better country."

Democrats had already been aiming to nationalize the race against Trump, campaigning on a slogan of "Make Trump Furious." If the president's Twitter account was any indication these past few days, they'd done just that.

"Democrat Jon Ossoff would be a disaster in Congress. VERY weak on crime and illegal immigration, bad for jobs and wants higher taxes. Say NO," Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. He also recorded a robocall hitting Ossoff and to try to boost GOP turnout.

"Just learned that Jon@Ossoff, who is running for Congress in Georgia, doesn't even live in the district. Republicans, get out and vote!" he continued tweeting. Ossoff grew up in the district but lives just outside of it with his longtime girlfriend who is in medical school at Emory University. After she finishes, he says they will move back into the district. Members of Congress aren't required to live in the district they represent.

In the wee morning hours Wednesday, Trump took to Twitter again to take a victory lap.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.