Republican Karen Handel wins Georgia House race, beating back liberal wave

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
Karen Handel blows a kiss with her husband, Steve, looking on while thanking supporters during her election night party in the Sixth District race with Jon Ossoff on Tuesday, June 20, 2017, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff in the hotly contested congressional special election in suburban Atlanta Tuesday. Handel garnered 52 percent of the vote compared with Ossoff’s 48 percent when the Associated Press called the race Tuesday night.

At her campaign headquarters, Handel thanked her supporters, campaign team and President  Trump.

“A special thanks to the president of the United States of America,” Handel said, as the crowd chanted Trump’s name. She also mentioned House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who was shot last week in an attack on Republican lawmakers at a baseball practice. Handel said he texted her every week during the campaign to support her.

“We need to also lift up this nation so that we can find a more civil way to deal with our disagreements,” Handel said.

In beating Ossoff, a 30-year-old first-time candidate who mounted a surprisingly strong bid, Handel triumphed over a wave of liberal activism and organizing so robust that it transformed the once solidly red district to a total tossup in the months before the election. Democrats, fueled by anger at Trump and the Republican Congress’ efforts to repeal Obamacare, poured millions into the race, making it the most expensive congressional matchup in U.S. history.

Ossoff conceded the race earlier Tuesday, telling his supporters “hope is still alive.”

“This is not the outcome any of us were hoping for, but this is the beginning of something much bigger than us,” Ossoff told the crowd, giving a special shout-out to the “women in this community” who backed his run.

Congressional Republicans are likely heaving a sigh of relief at the result, the third straight loss for Democrats in their quest to flip historically red districts in special elections under Trump. Democrats also lost a lower-profile, fourth special election in South Carolina Tuesday night, though by a smaller margin than was expected in the district. Just last year, Republican Tom Price won the Georgia district by 23 points, making Tuesday’s results a stunning swing that could still signal trouble for Republicans going forward. They may take a lesson from Handel’s careful positioning on the president as a potential path forward for 2018 if Trump remains unpopular.

Despite a fired-up Democratic base that turned Ossoff’s election into a national cause, Handel will now represent the district previously held by Newt Gingrich and Price, who left to become Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services.

It’s a stinging loss for Democrats, who would need to pick up 24 seats in the midterms to gain control of the House, including a number of red-leaning districts like this one.

Before the results came in, Joseph Bandera-Duplantier, a co-founder of Flippable, a grass-roots group focused on picking up Democratic seats in state legislatures, said an Ossoff victory would be a “rallying cry” for grass-roots voters and liberals in general.

“We’ve been aching for a major victory since the election, and I think this will go a long way for having a bit of a moral victory for people,” Bandera-Duplantier said.

Supporters of Democrat Jon Ossoff wait for the polls to come in at Ossoff’s election night event in Atlanta, Ga., June 20, 2017. (Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters)

Now Democrats will just have to keep on aching and may find themselves demoralized and frustrated. The loss will also likely prompt soul-searching about how the party and outside groups are deploying resources — and crowing from Republicans on the same theme.

“The reality is when Handel wins we’re going to be able to say, ‘Look, you spent $50 million in this district with your new darling candidate and you still could not make up the percent and a half that Trump won this district by in November,’” said local Republican consultant Seth Weathers, referring to the total amount spent by both sides during the campaign.

“If you can’t make up a percent and a half with a $50 million election,” Weathers added, “it’s not going to happen, and it should be depressing to Democrats attending to this.”

Trump, who will appear at a rally in Iowa Wednesday, will likely tout the victory and ridicule Democrats for the loss.

Left-leaning groups and the Ossoff campaign outspent Handel and right-leaning groups by about $2 million since the runoff began in April, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. All those millions were spent to reach about 400,000 voters.

Related slideshow: Ossoff vs. Handel: Georgia’s special election >>>

“It definitely feels like it’s a bit of an arms race for a point here or there when we could be dispersing this money for all 24 candidates we need to win and just play a little strategically,” said Bandera-Duplantier.

Though Democrats are likely to search for global lessons from the loss, the defeat could have come down to a hyperlocal issue: the Democratic candidate’s address.

Ossoff’s decision not to move into the district, which GOP political consultant Liz Mair called “boneheaded,” will likely haunt his campaign and supporters with “what ifs.” Ossoff grew up in the district but lived with his fiancée just outside it for the duration of the campaign, sparking endless attack ads and jabs from Handel. On Election Day, Ossoff was not able to vote for himself due to his residency.

Another potential factor in the results: the shooting attack on Republican lawmakers last week near Washington. One local Republican county chairman told the Washington Post he believed last week’s shooting of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise would “win the election for us.” (He later retracted those comments.) The man who shot Scalise had posted angrily about Republican lawmakers and Trump on social media and volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders in Iowa during the Democratic primary.

Handel’s win may also prompt congressional Republicans to take a closer look at the careful line she toed with Trump as a potential playbook for them going forward.

Handel kept her distance from Trump during the primary, drawing criticism from her Republican rivals who fully embraced him. After she won and headed into the runoff, the president flew down to the district on Air Force One to headline a private fundraiser for her, but the Handel campaign did not plan a rally with him. “You better win,” he told her in front of the well-heeled crowd, according to an attendee at the event.

She accepted the fundraiser and robocalls from Trump targeting voters in the district but barely mentioned him on the trail unless forced to by reporters. She said she would be independent from the White House if elected.

Some thought her middle-of-the-road approach looked weak and indecisive. “You can’t go kind of half in,” conservative host Laura Ingraham told Handel on her radio show in June. “You’ve got to go full-on. I mean, he’s the president of the United States. So why are you hiding him under a bushel basket?”

But now, keeping Trump under that “bushel basket” seems like it might have been a good idea. Trump is less popular among Republicans in Handel’s district than in other historically GOP districts. He won its voters by just 1.5 points in November, even as Price won reelection there by double digits.

“My instinct is that her positioning apart from Trump has actually been very helpful to her,” said GOP political consultant Liz Mair.

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