Ossoff to face Handel in Georgia runoff

Garance Franke-Ruta
Senior Politics Editor
Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to volunteers and supporters at a campaign office as he runs for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District on April 18, 2017 in Marietta, Georgia. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

ATLANTA —Democrat Jon Ossoff handily won the most votes in a crowded field in the suburban Atlanta 6th Congressional District special election Tuesday, but was unable to muster enough votes to avoid a runoff election against a Republican.

“This is already a victory for the ages,” Ossoff said close to midnight after taking the stage in Dunwoody to shouts of “Flip the Sixth!” from supporters. “We have defied the odds. We have shattered expectations.”

“We will be ready to fight on and win in June … and there is no amount of dark money super pac negative advertising that can overcome real grassroots activism. So bring it on.”

With 84 percent of the ballots counted, Ossoff was leading with 48.6 percent of the vote.

In a contest that has drawn national attention as an early test of Democratic efforts to challenge President Trump, Ossoff needed to top 50 percent of the vote against 17 opponents to be able to claim the seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and help Democrats achieve their goal of retaking the House of Representatives in 2018.

Trump, who had infused himself into the race with a series of tweets made in its closing days, breathed a sigh of relief that Ossoff now found himself in a runoff election in a traditionally red state.

“Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG “R” win with runoff in Georgia. Glad to be of help!” the president tweeted late Tuesday.

As early results came in, Ossoff drew the highest vote count of his competitors in the open primary to replace Price. With 16 percent of ballots yet to be counted, Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel led the Republican pack with 19.5 percent of the vote and Republican Bob Gray followed with 10.4 percent.

“You’re looking at the top Republican vote getter. Now that’s how you celebrate a birthday,” Handel told her supporters Tuesday, the night she turned 55, as the contest appeared likely to head to a run-off. “Tomorrow, the campaign starts anew.”

Should final results show Ossoff with under 50 percent of the vote, he and Handel will face each other in a head-to-head general election contest on June 20, which she is favored to win on the strength of the divided Republican primary field coming together to back their party’s candidate.

“We are going to rally behind Karen Handel,” Gray, who appeared poised for a third place finish, tweeted Tuesday night. “We wish her Godspeed.”

Polls taken before the hotly contested race showed Ossoff winning no more than 43 percent of the vote over his 11 Republican and four Democratic competitors. An outright win Tuesday was the improbable goal he’d set for the campaign — and represented his best chance of victory in the district. “The campaign’s goal is not to get into a runoff, though we’ll be ready to fight a runoff if necessary,” Ossoff said in early April. “The campaign’s goal is to win this election outright on April 18.”

On Tuesday morning, Osoff said the campaign was within “striking distance” of that goal, thanks to a surge in early voter turnout. Democrats vowed to press on should a runoff be required.

“Today was a great day. We saw what looks like pretty high expected turnout. And just could not be happier and more impressed with the community leaders who came out not just today but for the past months and built this special movement,” Ossoff campaign manager Keenan Pontini told Yahoo News, in the waning hours of voting. Two poll locations extended their hours to accommodate the crush of voters.

Erica Ferguson (C) and other supporters react as early return numbers show that Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff is in the early lead for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in a special election to replace Tom Price, who is now the secretary of Health and Human Services on April 18, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Ossoff’s early performance was a dramatic improvement over the Democrat who ran against Price in the fall. Price beat Democrat Rodney Stooksbury in November 61.7 percent to 32.3 percent. Ossoff’s ability to penetrate a GOP stronghold comes on the heels of the Kansas special election last week, in which populist progressive James Thompson fell short in a ruby-red district against Republican Ron Estes, but nonetheless demonstrated the power of the new anti-Trump organizing movement and its enthusiasm for fresh Democratic faces. Thompson gained 15 points over the previous Democrat to run in the district.

A 30-year-old political progressive, documentary filmmaker and one-time Capitol Hill staffer making his first bid for office — and one who does not even reside in the district he’s seeking to represent — would have been an unlikely candidate in any other year to represent this solidly Republican district in the South. But the boyish Ossoff was buoyed by a wave of national Democratic attention and grassroots enthusiasm as the earliest and most aggressive target of efforts to flip the House of Representatives in 2018.

The Daily Kos digital political community provided early support for his efforts, ultimately raising nearly $1.5 million for Ossoff from 115,185 donations over the course of the race.

And Ossoff’s youth was seen as a plus, according to supporters. “The reason people of other ages are excited about Jon is that he is younger. There’s a lot of talk about ‘Well, he’s only 30 years old.’ Give me a well-educated caring 30-year-old person who is geared up to get things done than these tired old people who have been around in office for a long time and have just been sitting and obstructing. I’ll take him any day,” said Libby Howze, 72, a self-described master gardener from Tucker, in the 6th Congressional District, and an Ossoff volunteer.

“It’s time for us to get some young guys. It’s time for us to get millennials and new ideas in Washington, D.C.,” said Mario Avery, mayor of Fairburn, Ga., at the Ossoff Election Night event.

Ossoff electrified national Democrats with a message of anti-Trump resistance, running on a platform of “Make Trump Furious,” and pulled in a record $8.3 million by the end of the first quarter of the year, mostly in small donations and with more than 90 percent of the money coming from out of state. Candidates in contests like the GA-06 primary normally raise only $10,000 or so.

“I think his energy and his perspective is refreshing in a way that hasn’t been seen in politics and his campaign didn’t involve the divisiveness of the larger election. I think that was refreshing,” said Joseph Dingle, 30, a first-time campaign volunteer canvasser from Atlanta, explaining the outpouring of support.

While the district that once sent Newt Gingrich to Washington has been Republican-held since the late 1970s, President Trump performed poorly there in 2016, besting Hillary Clinton by only 1.5 percent.

In addition to his unprecedented war chest, Ossoff had a deep well of skilled presidential campaign organizers to draw from as staff and volunteers, thanks to the race being the first competitive contest since the recently concluded presidential campaigns. And he had the support of more than 10,000 volunteers — both from around the country and from an array of vibrant local Trump-era resistance groups. There are 19 different Indivisible Groups in the 6th district, Indivisible’s national policy manager Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia told Yahoo News outside the Chamblee field office for the campaign, one of its two strongholds. In addition to those groups, Indivisible teams from Maryland, New York and Tennessee had gone to Georgia to turn out the vote and canvass for Ossoff. Also active on the ground was a group called Pave It Blue, the newly formed Liberal Moms of Rosswell Cobb, and Indivisible Georgia’s Sixth. A 501(c)(4) group called Better Georgia solicited funds to dot the district with lawn signs and to send mailers to residents featuring the cheeky slogan, “Vote Your Ossoff.”

Republican candidate for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional seat Karen Handel, left, is presented with a cake as her birthday is celebrated at an election night watch party in Roswell, Ga., Tuesday, April 18, 2017. (Photo: David Goldman/AP)

Once the race became national news, Ossoff faced concerted resistance from Republicans. The National Republican Campaign Committee had been on the air for weeks with ads saying Ossoff does not live in the district. He grew up there, and now lives just outside its boundaries with his girlfriend, who is a medical student at Emory University. Ossoff said on CNN Tuesday morning he plans to move into the district as soon as is practicable.

Ossoff has been accused of ties to terrorism because of his documentary work for the Qatar-funded TV channel Al Jazeera. Others sought to portray him as a “30-year-old frat boy” and revived images of him dressed as Han Solo during a college costume party. Donald Trump recorded a robocall that went out to area households Monday night, and tweeted six times about him.

The GOP side of the field was split, with the Club for Growth backing Bob Gray against Handel and the a dark money group called the 45 Committee, seeking to shore up support for her.

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