Democrat Jon Ossoff will compete in a runoff in a traditionally Republican congressional district in suburban Atlanta, after falling just short of the majority threshold needed to win outright in a special election on Tuesday.
With 88% of precincts reporting, the 30-year-old had 48.3% of the vote. He willl face Republican opponent Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, on 20 June, after Handel finished second in a chaotic 18-candidate field.
In a speech just before midnight, Ossoff painted his performance as a victory, saying: “We may not know the outcome for sometime but let me tell you this, there is no doubt that this is already a victory for the ages.”
In a midnight tweet, Donald Trump took a victory lap for Ossoff’s expected failure to win a majority of the vote. “Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG “R” win with runoff in Georgia. Glad to be of help!” The campaign had attracted late attention from Trump, who tweeted six times about it in the 48 hours before polls closed, an unprecedented level of activity in a down-ballot race.
The special election became a locus of national attention, and brought the type of politics more associated with swing states to leafy Atlanta suburbs filled with office parks and corporate headquarters. While Ossoff’s hefty fundraising of over $8 million guaranteed a media frenzy alone, it was followed with extensive advertising by Republicans urging their voters to support any candidate but Ossoff as well as the self-funded Republican Dan Moody, who saturated the area with a television spot featuring him cleaning up elephant manure.
Trump’s activity was unsurprising in a race that many nationally tried to paint as a referendum on the president in a congressional district where he lagged far behind other Republicans in 2016.
In interviews with voters, Ossoff supporters invariably cited Trump in describing why they support the Democrat. In contrast, those supporting Republican candidate were far more focused on local issues and the fine gradations between leading contenders in a crowded Republican field.
Eleven different Republicans ran in a reliably red district that has been the bedrock of the Georgia Republican party for more than a generation. Represented by Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, it went on to elect Price who regularly won by landslide margins against nominal opposition. However, Clinton won 46.8% of the vote there, raising hopes for Democrats who saw it a potential gain due to Trump’s unpopularity there.
Despite its southern location, the district resembles stretches of prosperous suburbia found in metro areas ranging from Raleigh to Denver. There are far more Starbucks than Waffle Houses and nearly 60% of residents have a college degree, making it one of the most well-educated districts in the country.
Ossoff’s performance there, which appears likely to exceed Clinton’s numbers against Trump in 2016, potentially represents a major political shift in American politics as Democrats increasingly try to woo voters in prosperous suburbs like Georgia’s Sixth District.
It also represents a warning sign for national Republicans. Ossoff’s near-win comes a week after a Kansas Democrat made a bright red district competitive in a special election there. In both races, the Democratic congressional candidate ran roughly 24 percentage points ahead of the party’s candidate for the seat in 2016. Similar margins in 2018 would be more than sufficient for Democrats to win the 24 seats needed for the party to regain a majority in the House of Representatives.
At a local level, a runoff will also present a study in contrasts between Handel and Ossoff. Handel is a veteran politician, known for her trademark pearl necklaces, who served one term as Georgia secretary of state before resigning to run for governor in 2010. Handel narrowly lost the Republican primary for that office by 2,500 votes to current incumbent Nathan Deal and also lost a 2014 primary for US Senate. She also became a lightning rod for national controversy when she was forced to step down from a senior role at charity devoted to fighting breast cancer in 2012 after pushing it to defund Planned Parenthood.
Ossoff is a lanky 30-year-old first-time candidate who has faced heavy criticism for not living in the district. Despite growing up there, he lives with his girlfriend a few minutes away. Republicans have attacked him for producing television documentaries that have been aired by al-Jazeera as well as for potentially inflating his credentials as a former congressional staffer.