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Republican Karen Handel wins Georgia special election

Republican Karen Handel gave a heart sign to supporters gathered in Atlanta Tuesday night.
Republican Karen Handel gave a heart sign to supporters gathered in Atlanta Tuesday night.(Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

ATLANTA — Karen Handel, a veteran Republican officeholder, overcame a deluge of liberal money to win a special House election in Georgia on Tuesday, bridging the divide in her own party between admirers of President Trump and those made uneasy by his turbulent new administration.

Handel, 55, fended off Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democrat and political newcomer who emerged from obscurity to raise $25 million from progressives across the country eager to express their anger at Trump. That fervor quickly elevated what would otherwise have been a sleepy local race into a high-stakes referendum on Trump and the most expensive House campaign in history.

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The surprisingly easy victory for Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state and Fulton County official, averted a humiliating upset for Republicans in an affluent, suburban Atlanta seat they have held for nearly 40 years. And it showed that Republicans skeptical of Trump remain comfortable supporting more conventional candidates from their party.

The apparent success of relentless Republican attacks linking Ossoff to the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, and her “San Francisco values” also reaffirmed the efficacy of tying Democratic candidates in conservative districts to their brethren in more liberal parts of the country.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Handel had 52.6 percent of the vote to 47.4 percent for Ossoff.

Addressing supporters in Atlanta, Handel noted with pride that she had become the first Republican woman sent to Congress from Georgia, and she pledged to represent all of her constituents, including Ossoff’s supporters. But she made clear she would work to pass major elements of the Republican agenda, including the impending health care overhaul and tax reform.

“We have a lot work to do,” Handel said. “A lot of problems we need to solve.”

For Democrats, the loss was disappointing after questionable “moral victories” in two earlier special election defeats, for House seats in conservative districts in Kansas and Montana. Ossoff appeared so close to victory that Democrats were allowing themselves to imagine a win that would spur a wave of Republican retirements, a recruitment bonanza, and a Democratic fund-raising windfall heading into the 2018 midterm elections.

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Addressing a crush of cameras and supporters who spilled out of a hotel ballroom, a subdued Ossoff tried to strike a hopeful note as he conceded defeat.

“This is not the outcome any of us were hoping for,” he said. “But this is the beginning of something much bigger than us.”

The margin in Georgia was ultimately larger than even what some Republicans had expected, as tax-averse voters in the outer suburbs overwhelmingly sided with Handel.

Yet the Republican triumph came only after an extraordinary financial intervention by conservative groups and by the party’s leading figures, buoying Democrats’ hopes that they can still compete in the sort of wealthy, conservative-leaning districts they must win to recapture the House.

Both parties now confront the same question: What does such a hard-won victory in the Lululemon-and-loafer subdivisions of Dunwoody and Roswell, where Trump prevailed in November, augur for Republicans defending similarly competitive seats outside the South?

Even as Ossoff lost, Democrats’ spirits were somewhat lifted by the unexpectedly strong showing of their nominee in another special House election Tuesday, in South Carolina. In a heavily conservative district vacated by Mick Mulvaney, now the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, African-Americans came out in force for a wealthy Democrat, Archie Parnell, and the Republican candidate, Ralph Norman, won by a narrower margin than Handel in Georgia.

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In the so-called jungle primary in Georgia — the initial special election was April 18 — Ossoff, one of 18 candidates on the ballot, captured just over 48 percent of the vote, an unusually strong showing for a Democrat, but short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Handel came in a distant second with just under 20 percent, as Republicans divided their support among a number of credible conservative contenders.

But Republican leaders were optimistic that the party’s voters would rally behind Handel in a two-candidate showdown.

Questions also lingered about whether the grass-roots coalition backing Ossoff — fueled by highly motivated anti-Trump activists who were, in many cases, new to political activity and organizing — could improve on its April showing in a runoff set for the beginning of the summer vacation season, in a district where people have the means to escape to the beach.

Handel and her supporters portrayed Ossoff as far too liberal for a district that, covering somewhat different territory, was represented from 1979 to 1999 by Newt Gingrich, the Republican former House speaker. They also criticized Ossoff for his youth and inexperience and assailed him for living outside the district, although he was raised in it.

Ossoff’s allies, for their part, paid for an advertising campaign deriding Handel, a former chairwoman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, as a profligate spender while in office. And Ossoff ran television ads that rehashed Handel’s resignation from the Susan G. Komen Foundation over her belief that the group, which raises money to fight breast cancer, should cut ties with Planned Parenthood.

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While Ossoff’s supporters showed great passion, Republicans were presumed to have a heavy mathematical advantage in the district, which Tom Price, now Trump’s health secretary, won by 23 points in 2016. And it was unclear throughout the contest how the campaigns would ultimately be buffeted by tempestuous events in Washington, including Trump’s handling of the investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election, the House’s passage of an unpopular health care overhaul, and the attack last week on a group of Republican lawmakers by an anti-Trump liberal.

Republicans, fearing the symbolic and tangible repercussions of a loss in Georgia, spared no expense in propping up Handel’s candidacy. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan all came to Atlanta to help her raise money, and conservative groups poured $12 million into the runoff, nearly all of it assailing Ossoff.

A super PAC aligned with Ryan, the Congressional Leadership Fund, spent more than $7 million from April to June.

Still, the $8 million gusher of liberal money that Ossoff enjoyed leading up to the April vote only intensified during the two-month approach to the runoff. He brought in another $15 million, much of it in small contributions from beyond Georgia’s borders. And national Democratic groups, persuaded that he had a strong shot at winning, rushed in with their own advertisements denouncing Handel.

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Although they received enormous political and financial support from allies in Washington, the candidates tiptoed around more polarizing national political figures. Handel rarely uttered Trump’s name of her own volition, preferring instead to highlight the district’s Republican lineage and warn that Ossoff would do Pelosi’s bidding. Only in declaring victory late Tuesday night did Handel make a point of offering “special thanks to the president of the United States of America,” a line that triggered a boisterous chant of Trump’s name from the crowd.

Ossoff, for his part, sought to avoid being linked to Pelosi or labeled a liberal. He assured voters he would not raise taxes on the rich. And, in pledging to root out wasteful spending and seek compromise, he sounded more like an heir to former Senator Sam Nunn’s brand of Southern centrism than a progressive millennial who cut his teeth working for Representative Hank Johnson, a DeKalb County liberal.

Voter turnout in April was already high for a spring special election, and it soared during the runoff. Nearly 150,000 voters cast ballots before the polls opened Tuesday, nearly three times the early vote in the first round. And nearly 40,000 of those people had not voted at all in April.

By Tuesday, the fatigue among voters was palpable.

Some residents posted warnings demanding that campaign workers stop knocking on their doors.

“NO SOLICITATION!!!!!!!” read one sign, photographed and published on social media by a Handel supporter. “And no! We aren’t voting for OSSOFF! I have big dogs!!!”

The campaign so enveloped the Atlanta region that polling places in a neighboring district posted signs telling residents that they were not eligible to vote.