Democrat falls short of outright win in Georgia, faces June runoff

Democratic candidate for Georgia's 6th Congressional District seat Jon Ossoff talks with supporters at a campaign field office.
Democratic candidate for Georgia's 6th Congressional District seat Jon Ossoff talks with supporters at a campaign field office. AP

Democrat Jon Ossoff failed to win a special House election outright in Georgia on Tuesday, a result that means the race will continue until a June run-off.

The result was a letdown to Democratic and progressive leaders alike, who’d hoped to deliver a stinging rebuke to President Donald Trump in the suburban Atlanta district.

But Democrats maintain that Ossoff could still win the second phase of the contest, likely against Republican candidate Karen Handel, who was on track to finish second in the race. And they say that the fact the race was even competitive is proof that the political tide has turned against the GOP since Trump took office.

“We have defied the odds, we have shattered expectations,” Ossoff told his supporters late Tuesday night, as returns continued to trickle in. “We are changing the world, and your voices are going to ring out across this state and across this country.”

Trump, for his part, took to Twitter early Wednesday to proclaim the results of the race a victory for the GOP.

“Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG ‘R’ win with runoff in Georgia,” the president tweeted. “Glad to be of help!”

Election returns were not yet final early Wednesday, but Ossoff held a massive lead over the 17 other candidates in the field. But he was not on track, according to election analysts, to win the more than 50 percent of the vote necessary to avoid a run-off.

With 84 percent of precincts reporting, Ossoff had earned 49 percent of the vote, according to The Associated Press.

Handel, Georgia’s former secretary of state, was on track to best 10 other GOP candidates to finish in second place.

Georgia’s 6th Congressional District has been a traditional Republican stronghold, represented in the 1980s and early 1990s by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. It’s strongly supported Republican presidential candidates, too, giving Mitt Romney a greater than 20-point win in 2012.

But Trump’s sharp-elbowed cultural worldview and provocative rhetoric helped Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton make serious inroads in a place populated by wealthy, well-educated white voters, many of whom defected en masse from the GOP leader’s ticket last year. Trump won the district by only about one point over Clinton.

That swing foreshadowed an opening for Ossoff, who became a candidate for the open-seat race after former Rep. Tom Price became the president’s secretary of Health and Human Services earlier this year.

The Democratic candidate, a former congressional aide and the owner of a investigative film company, is only 30 years old. But his candidacy became a sensation among liberal activists nationwide, who helped Ossoff raise more than $8 million in only two months - an astounding sum that helped him become an early front-runner in the race.

Even as he ran a campaign more focused on jobs and shaking up the Washington status quo, Ossoff became a symbol of the anti-Trump movement. And Democratic leaders say they hope the energy he’s stirred in the party’s base will be a sign of things to come in next year’s midterm elections.

“We’re the underdog in this,” said Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said on MSNBC on Monday. “But we’ve got some real wind at our back at every level.”

National Republicans, hamstrung by a convoluted 11-candidate field in their own party, responded to Ossoff in force. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP-aligned Super PAC, and National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s political arm, spent millions of dollars attacking the Democrat in TV and digital ads. The attacks, Democrats concede, slowed Ossoff’s momentum.

Although the Georgia race has received the most attention, it’s not the only special House election to make waves this year. Last week, a House race in Kansas became unexpectedly competitive, with the GOP nominee defeating a Democrat by just seven points in a district Republicans won by more than 30 points in November.

Next month, Democrats and Republicans will tangle again in a House race in Montana, a contest where the Congressional Leadership Fund and NRCC are already running attack ads against Democratic nominee Rob Quist.

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty