Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel will compete in a runoff after finishing Tuesday as the top two candidates in an 18-way race for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s old House seat representing suburban Atlanta.
Ossoff, who rode a wave of national enthusiasm among Democrats and raised millions over the first quarter of the year, had hoped to avoid a runoff, scheduled for June 20. But on Tuesday he was unable to garner 50 percent of the vote in a field against 11 Republicans, in a district President Donald Trump narrowly won in November.
“Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG ‘R’ win with runoff in Georgia. Glad to be of help!” the president tweeted early Wednesday, hours after calling on Georgians to vote Republican on Tuesday.
Republican operatives were a little nervous ahead of the “jungle” primary, with one national operative suggesting privately that Ossoff, a former Capitol Hill staffer-turned-documentary filmmaker, could outright win the race, but he was only able to secure 48 percent when The Associated Press called the race.
But now the edge likely rests with Handel, a favorite of local establishment leaders who previously served as Georgia’s secretary of state and twice ran for statewide office. With 20 percent of the vote, she beat her main GOP rivals for the nomination — former state Sens. Dan Moody and Judson Hill and businessman and local city councilman Bob Gray — by roughly double digits, despite their high-profile endorsements. (Georgia Sen. David Perdue endorsed Moody; Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida threw his support behind Hill and the conservative Club for Growth endorsed Gray.)
Republican strategists feared intraparty feuding would depress turnout among the base, with the Club for Growth taking aim at Handel, in particular, as part of a “six-figure” ad buy, the group said. But that issue didn’t end up being fatal, and one of her rivals, Gray, was already throwing his support behind her.
The Republican National Committee, along with the National Republican Congressional Committee, began engaging about three weeks ago to encourage voter turnout and its independent expenditure arm spent about $2 million in the race, a committee official said.
The Democratic National Committee engaged in a big way, too, funneling robocalls and digital ads to the district urging their supporters to vote. They did not use Ossoff’s name, but he used its website — IWillVote.com — to point voters to their polling places.
The Democratic Party, on offense in districts facing special elections, found itself in a different position Tuesday night than a week before, when its long-shot candidate in Kansas, local attorney James Thompson, lost to Republican state Treasurer Ron Estes. A Democratic National Committee aide was touting the party’s efforts in the Georgia race on Tuesday, a stark contrast to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s efforts to downplay their role last week.
Before Georgians head back to the polls to settle the runoff, Republicans will have to defend another House seat being eyed by Democrats in Montana next month.