Republican Karen Handel won a nationally watched congressional election Tuesday in Georgia, and she thanked President Donald Trump after she avoided an upset that would have rocked Washington ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Returns showed Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, winning about 52 percent of the vote over Democrat Jon Ossoff, who won nearly 48 percent in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
“A special thanks to the president of the United States of America,” she said late Tuesday night as her supporters chanted, “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
It was Handel’s most public embrace of the man whose tenuous standing in this well-educated, suburban enclave made a previously safe Republican district close to begin with.
Handel’s margin allows Republicans a sigh of relief after what’s being recognized as the most expensive House race in U.S history, with a price tag that may exceed $50 million.
Yet the result in a historically conservative district still offers Republicans a warning – and Democrats some encouragement – that Trump’s tenuous standing will dominate the looming campaign cycle.
Both U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Washington State University professor Cornell Clayton said it’s too early to tell what the results of the election will mean for the 2018 midterm elections.
Georgia’s outcome follows similar results in Montana, Kansas and South Carolina, where Republicans won special House races by much narrower margins than they managed as recently as November.
Republicans immediately crowed over winning a seat that Democrats spent $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 still 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.
Before the results were in Tuesday, McMorris Rodgers said that while some members of both parties were looking at the race as a “must win,” the impact on the 2018 midterm elections can’t be determined yet.
“I think it’s too soon to tell,” said the Spokane Republican, who ranks fourth in the House GOP structure. “Every special election is different.”
The amount of money spent on the campaign is breaking all records, and Democrats “clearly had a lot of energy” going into the race, she said. Even though Republicans have held that seat for decades, the demographics of that suburban district are changing.
More important than the outcome of a single race will be what Republicans are able to accomplish between now and the 2018 elections, McMorris Rodgers said.
“We need to get results. We need to get things done,” she said.
Clayton, the Thomas S. Foley distinguished professor at WSU’s Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service, said the race became symbolic for both parties but may not be a bellwether for the 2018 midterm elections.
“I think it was overhyped,” Clayton said.
The fact that it was close in a traditionally Republican district could mean generic GOP candidates will have trouble next year, he said. On the other hand, the fact that a Democrat couldn’t win in a swing district where Trump didn’t do so well might mean 2018 won’t be a wave election.
So much money was spent on both sides that the results can’t easily be projected onto the 435 races when the entire House is up for re-election. And many things can happen in Congress and the country before then.
“That election is a long way away,” Clayton said.
Handel, 55, will become the first Republican woman to represent Georgia in the U.S. House, according to state party officials.
Her win comes after losing bids for governor in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, and it builds on a business and political career she built after leaving an abusive home as a teen.
“It’s that fighting spirit, that perseverance and tenacity that I will take to Washington,” she said Tuesday night.
Handel is the latest in a line of Republicans who have represented the district since 1979, beginning with Newt Gingrich, who would become House speaker. Most recently, Tom Price resigned in February to join Trump’s administration. The president himself struggled here, though, edging Democrat Hillary Clinton but falling short of a majority among an affluent, well-educated electorate that typically has given Republican nominees better than 60 percent of the vote.
Handel emphasized that Republican pedigree often in her campaign and again in her victory speech.
She also noted throughout the campaign that she has 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.
In victory, she commended Ossoff and pledged to work for his supporters. She also noted last week’s shooting of Republican 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.
Ossoff, taking the stage at his own party after conceding the race, told his supporters his campaign “is the beginning of something much bigger than us,” adding, “The fight goes on.”
Party organizations, independent political action committees and donors from Los Angeles to Boston sent a cascade of money into a race, filling metro Atlanta’s airwaves with ads and its 6th District neighborhoods with hordes of paid canvassers.
Contrary to the chants at Handel’s victory party, she insisted for months that voters’ choice had little to do with Trump. She rarely mentioned him, despite holding a closed-door fundraiser with him earlier this spring. She pointed voters instead to her “proven conservative record” as a state and local elected official.
Her 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 barely 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.
On policy, she mostly echoes party leaders. She said she’d have voted for the House Republican health care bill, though she sometimes misrepresented its provisions in debates with Ossoff. She touts traditional 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.
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