ATLANTA — Democrat Jon Ossoff fought to capture a Republican-held House seat in Atlanta's wealthy, conservative suburbs Tuesday with a groundswell of grass-roots activism and millions in donations fueled largely by antipathy to President Donald Trump.
Early today, returns showed that Ossoff had fallen below 50 percent of the vote and was headed to a runoff against Republican Karen Handel, the top GOP vote-getter in a special election to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in Georgia's 6th Congressional District.
In a runoff, Ossoff could find it difficult to sustain the momentum he witnessed this past week in a traditionally Republican district that has been in GOP hands since 1979. Although Handel had earned less 20 percent of the vote with 86 percent of precincts reporting, in a runoff she was widely expected to rally Republican voters who had divided their votes among 11 GOP candidates Tuesday.
Just before midnight, at her election night party in Roswell, Handel thanked supporters and urged Republicans to unite. "Tomorrow we start the campaign anew," she said.
Ossoff took the stage at his own party, his voice hoarse. "I know it has been a long evening and it looks like it may be a longer one. We may not know the outcome for some time." But, he added to the roaring crowd holding signs, "there is no doubt this already a victory for the ages."
"We will be ready to fight on and win in June if it's necessary," Ossoff said. "Bring it on."
Handel's showing was due to more than name recognition from her long tenure in state politics. She also benefited from $1.3 million in support from Ending Spending, a conservative advocacy group aligned with the billionaire Ricketts family.
National GOP groups, meanwhile, are readying new waves of television advertising.
Democrats had hoped to upend the national political landscape with a stunning victory in this round of voting, rousing their demoralized party just five months after Trump won the White House and stoking a burgeoning anti-Trump movement across the country. Ahead of next year's mid-term elections, they saw an opportunity to raise expectations about possibly winning back majorities in Congress.
Ossoff's candidacy gave Democrats an exhilarating if brief taste of what it will be like to compete in a ruby-red district next year, when they have to win 24 seats to take back the House.
Republicans, at war with each other as much as with Democrats, were hoping to escape with a reprieve in the turbulent age of Trump. Facing more battles to come in 2018, the contest gave them little clarity about the party's ideological drift and how much it should be tethered to the president in the future.
Many Democrats moved quickly to frame the energy around Ossoff's bid as a damaging referendum on Trump as he nears the 100-day mark of a presidency so far defined by an early stumble on health care legislation and a GOP split into bickering factions.
Ossoff, 30, a former congressional staffer and political novice who catapulted to national notice, raised more than $8 million and drew heavy support from prominent Democrats and liberal organizers. They saw his campaign, as well as a special House election last week in Kansas where a Democrat narrowly lost, as symbolic battlegrounds for their recovering party.
Trump personally intervened in the final days. On Tuesday, he tweeted that Republicans "must get out today and VOTE in Georgia 6" and warned that "Dem Ossoff will raise your taxes" and is "very bad on crime."
White House officials, such as chief strategist Stephen Bannon, paid close attention to the Georgia election, well aware of the implications for Trump's political capital as the president attempts to jolt his agenda in the coming months.