DUNWOODY, Ga. (AP) — Republicans can enjoy some breathing room after winning a Georgia special congressional race that morphed from an afterthought in the usually conservative Atlanta suburbs into an expensive national proxy for Washington wars ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Democrats are left with the bitter hope of another tighter-than-usual margin, still searching for a contest where anti-Trump energy and flush campaign coffers actually add up to victory.
The latest GOP winner is Karen Handel, who won about 52 percent of the vote in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District to quell the upstart phenomenon of Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democrat who raised more than $23 million and became a symbol of opposition to President Donald Trump.
Handel, who left an abusive home as a teen, will be the first Republican woman to represent Georgia in Congress.
The former Georgia secretary of state was quick to embrace her party’s leader after mostly avoiding him — at least publicly — during a protracted campaign.
“A special thanks to the president of the United States of America,” Handel said late Tuesday night as her supporters chanted, “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
It was Handel’s most explicit praise of a president whose tenuous standing put this previously safe Republican district in peril in the first place. Trump barely won the affluent, well-educated district in November, trailing the usual GOP benchmark here by double-digits.
Handel’s tough race, combined with closer-than-usual GOP House victories in Kansas, Montana and South Carolina, suggests Trump will dominate the coming election cycle, forcing Republicans to make peace with him, for better or worse.
Joe Webb, a Handel supporter from Marietta, wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat throughout Handel’s victory party.
“She personally told me she was rock solid” with the president, said Webb, 70. He added that 6th District Republicans united against a Democratic candidate many saw as a tool of his national party leaders.
Republicans immediately crowed over winning a seat Democrats spent at least $30 million trying to flip. “Democrats from coast to coast threw everything they had at this race, and Karen would not be defeated,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement.
Democrats must defend their current districts and win 24 GOP-held seats to regain a House majority next November. Party leaders profess encouragement from the trends, but the latest losses mean they will have to rally donors and volunteers after a tough stretch of special elections.
Ossoff told his supporters: “The fight goes on.”
Handel is the latest in a line of Republicans who have represented the Georgia 6th since 1979, beginning with Newt Gingrich, who would become House speaker. Most recently, Tom Price resigned in February to join Trump’s administration. Handel emphasized that pedigree often during her campaign and again during her victory speech.
She also noted throughout the campaign that she’s lived in the district for 25 years, unlike Ossoff, who grew up in the district but lives in Atlanta, a few miles south of the 6th District’s southern border.
Handel commended Ossoff and pledged to work for his supporters. She noted last week’s shooting of Republican House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and said politics has become too embittered.
“My pledge is to be part of the solution, to focus on governing,” she said.
Handel insisted for months that voters’ choice had little to do with Trump. She rarely mentioned the administration, despite holding a closed-door fundraiser with the president earlier this spring. She pointed voters instead to her “proven conservative record” as a state and local elected official.
Protestations aside, Handel often embraced the national tenor of the race, joining a GOP chorus that lambasted Ossoff as a “dangerous liberal” who was “hand-picked” by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. She also welcomed a parade of national GOP figures to Atlanta to help her raise money, with Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence holding fundraisers following Trump’s April visit.
It was enough to help Handel raise more than $5 million, not a paltry sum in a congressional race, but only about a fifth of Ossoff’s fundraising haul. The Republican campaign establishment, however, helped make up the difference. A super PAC backed by Ryan spent $7 million alone; the national GOP’s House campaign arm added $4.5 million.
On policy, Handel mostly echoes the GOP line. She said she would have voted for the House Republican health care bill, though she sometimes misrepresented its provisions in debates with Ossoff.
She touts supply side economics, going so far as to say during one debate that she does “not support a living wage” — her way of explaining her opposition to a minimum-wage increase.