The nation’s premier 2017 political race entered a bruising new stage Wednesday, as Karen Handel sought to rally skeptical Republicans while Democrats supporting Jon Ossoff prepared for a grueling second round of votes to represent a north Atlanta district in Congress.
The two will square off in a June 20 runoff that is seen as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency, a perception that the Republican cemented with his personal involvement in the race. He recorded a robo-call and unleashed a barrage of tweets assailing Ossoff and, in a call Wednesday to Handel, pledged more help and resources ahead of the final vote.
Handel captured about 20 percent of the vote to emerge as the leading GOP contender in the 18-candidate race, and she moved to heal deep divisions among Republicans — particularly within Georgia’s elected ranks — torn over her candidacy.
“We all understand that what’s at stake is bigger than one person, and we’re seeing that now,” she said in an interview, pitching herself as the only remaining barrier standing against Democrats hoping to capture a district once considered the safest of Republican seats. “You’ll see the enthusiasm continue to build.”
A 30-year-old former congressional aide, Ossoff aimed for an outright victory in Tuesday’s special election, hoping to exploit a crowded field and bitter infighting between the 11 Republicans in the race. He cast his performance — he tallied about 48 percent of the vote — as a “victory for the ages,” although he fell short of his goal of avoiding a runoff.
Ossoff fared far better Tuesday than polling suggested thanks to a surge in turnout in DeKalb County — the bluest part of the district — and enthusiasm from voters who rarely cast ballots in special elections. He also easily consolidated support among left-leaning voters, squashing the four other Democrats in the race.
But he did so at an enormous expense: He raised more than $8.3 million and emptied much of his campaign bank account in the final days of the race. He raised that enormous sum — an unprecedented quarterly amount in a congressional race — by positioning himself as a “make Trump furious” candidate who became a standard-bearer for the Trump resistance.
“No one expected just six weeks ago that we would win so big last night,” Ossoff said in an interview. “We were able to build a grass-roots organization of unprecedented intensity and scale in just a few months. Now we’ve got more time to keep growing it.”
He’ll now go back to the same donor base for a new round of cash to fuel his campaign, which will come under more targeted attacks from Handel and a more unified Republican base. Voting history and demographics of the district, which spans from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County, are still squarely against him.
“The Democrats threw everything they possibly could at this race for a very competitive seat that became the center of national politics,” said U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, the No. 5 Republican in the U.S. House.
“They spent more than $8 million and gained about 1 percent from Hillary Clinton’s numbers,” Collins added . “It showed the 6th District is a conservative district. And in the runoff, Karen Handel can win.”
Ossoff will also come under increasing attack for what is perhaps the biggest liability of his campaign: He doesn’t live in the district, and the overwhelming majority of his donors don’t either.
“How does a person connect with the district when they don’t even live in the district?” Handel said. “He wasn’t even able to vote there.”
Although he grew up within the district’s environs, Ossoff lives near Emory University with his girlfriend and said he will move into the district when she graduates from medical school. Federal law doesn’t require him to live in the district to run for the seat.
‘Of course I’ll be seen with him’
Handel has her own challenges. Her no-frills campaign attracted a corps of dedicated supporters but paled in comparison with the energy and enthusiasm that Ossoff generated. And she has much fence-mending to do among Georgia Republican leaders after two failed bids for statewide office — a 2010 run for governor and a 2014 U.S. Senate bid — that divided the party.
Some of her onetime Republican adversaries moved to rally behind her after she landed a runoff spot. Republican Bob Gray, who had a particularly bitter rivalry with Handel in the special election, urged Republicans to get behind her. So did U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who backed another candidate in the race, and Gov. Nathan Deal, who defeated her in a testy runoff.
And Ossoff, who has largely remained above the fray, did not rule out lobbing his own attack ads against Handel. He said he will aim to draw a contrast with her on a trio of themes: “I’m going to focus on fiscal responsibility. Accountability in government. And fresh leadership.”
Ossoff and his supporters still have hope that they can flip the district in June, and some of that is based on the tepid support it showed for Trump, who carried it in November by less than 2 points. And Tuesday’s vote showed the perils of allying with Trump, with the two candidates running as the most ardent pro-Trump loyalists flailing at the polls.
Handel took an arm’s-length approach to Trump throughout her campaign, telling voters she supported him in November but hardly mentioning him at campaign stops.Her 10-minute speech on Tuesday night didn’t once invoke his name, and she stressed Wednesday that she was running as a “strong, independent-minded conservative.”
But she said she will not be running away from the president, who is scheduled to headline a National Rifle Association convention in Atlanta next week.
“He is the president of the United States of America. Of course I’ll be seen with him,” Handel said, adding: “The biggest opportunity for us in the race is having Republicans across the party being united and locking arms in the race.”
Exhausted supporters of both candidates girded themselves for another round of campaigning that’s destined to bring a new volley of advertisements and high-profile visits from party leaders. GOP strategist Chip Lake said Ossoff “is in for the fight of his life.”
“But it’s a wake-up call for Republicans. He completely solidified the Democratic vote, and he gave us a scare,” Lake said. “Still, I like our chances over nine weeks.”
Some Ossoff supporters, meanwhile, struggled to choke back their disappointment. Actress Alyssa Milano, one of Ossoff’s most vocal champions, summed it up for many of his backers after he failed to avert a runoff when she tweeted: “I want to puke.” Others hunkered down for the long haul.
“We are going to fight twice as hard,” said Martha Bernstein, an Alpharetta teacher. “Jon is our hope for the future. Jon is our world moving forward. We are going to fight twice as hard, and we’re not going away.”