Republican Karen Handel was projected to win Tuesday’s closely watched U.S. House special election in Georgia, defeating Democrat Jon Ossoff in the most expensive congressional race ever.
The Associated Press called the election for Handel with 81 percent of the precincts reporting and the Republican holding a 11,000-vote lead over Ossoff.
Handel, 55, becomes 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 the post in February to join Trump’s administration as health and human services secretary. 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.
In April, Handel trailed Ossoff in the first round of voting but led all Republican candidates to qualify for a runoff. Ossoff tallied 48 percent, just shy of an outright victory.
Handel celebrated the early numbers with her supporters at an area hotel, saying she fared well in early and absentee voting but that it was too early to make a prediction.
“It’s still very, very early,” she said. “Everything we’re seeing is incredibly encouraging. … Let’s everybody hang tight, watch returns for a little bit longer, we’ll see what the trends do.”
The race has smashed fundraising records for a House contest, as Democrats try to capitalize on President Trump’s ratings to win the long-held Republican seat.
The campaigns for Handel and Ossoff, along with outside groups, spent a record $50 million.
The 30-year-old Ossoff, who lives just outside the district, failed to win the seat in April. But he was a top-two finisher in an 18-candidate field along with Handel, which landed them in Tuesday’s runoff.
The latest RealClearPolitics.com averaging of polls had Handel leading by less than 1 percentage point, which meant the race was essentially tied.
As polls closed, Georgia election officiasl said voting went smoothly throughout the day, amid some rain across the state.
The sixth congressional district seat, in suburban Atlanta, has been occupied by Republicans since 1979.
GOP Rep. Tom Price gave up the seat in February to become Health and Human Services Secretary.
The 2017 races were supposed to be a prelude to the Democrats’ grand plan to win control of the House next year — based largely on the expectation that voters will be dissatisfied with Trump and fellow Republicans who control Congress.
However, Democrats have failed in their first two attempts this year to take a Republican-held House seat.
In Kansas, Republicans held onto the seat of Mike Pompeo, now the CIA director, and they kept the Montana seat of Ryan Zinke, who became Trump’s Secretary of Interior.
So Democrats essentially pinned their last hopes on Ossoff, a first-time candidate, documentary filmmaker and former congressional aide.
The other special election race Tuesday was in South Carolina. Millionaire developer Ralph Norman, the Republican, defeated former Goldman Sachs tax adviser Archie Parnell, the Democrat, according to the Associated Press.
The race was for the seat left open by Republican Mick Mulvaney, now the White House budget director.
Ossoff has tried to thread the needle in the conservative-leaning Georgia district, appealing to Republican voters by vowing to cut taxes for small busineeses, while championing equal rights for women and minorities, which earned him the support of civil right icon and Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis.
However, Trump has repeatedly warned voters that Ossoff, if elected, would increase taxes and be soft on national security.
“Ossoff, who wants to raise your taxes to the highest level and is weak on crime and security, doesn’t even live in district,” Trump tweeted hours before polling stations opened.
While Republicans have held the seat since former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took it from Democrats nearly four decades ago, the district does not appear as conservative as in years past.
Trump won the district over Democrat Hillary Clinton last year by just 1.5 percent, compared to 2008 when Republican presidential nominee Arizona Sen. John McCain won by 18.9 percent.
While the race has attracted national attention and record money, Georgia voters have also taken a big interest in the outcome.
More than 40,000 people vote early, including 36,000 who didn’t vote in the April contest.
The parties are also attacking each other for the amount of out-of-state money they collected.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis showed just 3.5 percent of Ossoff’s donations between the end of March and May came from Georgia.
Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, continued Tuesday to tout her experience as a state and local elected official and argue that outside forces are trying to buy the seat.
Voters “are not interested in Hollywood and California coming in and buying this seat,” she said on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends.”
Still, Handel also benefited from outside spending, though most didn’t go directly to her campaign.
Groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, have spent millions on her behalf.
On Monday night, Ossoff told voters: “Politics does not have to be about fear and hate and deception and division,” avoiding mentioning Trump directly, as is his custom, but blistering “those cynics in Washington, D.C.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.