Democrat Jon Ossoff is projected to advance to a runoff in Georgia's special election after failing to clinch a majority of the vote on Tuesday in order to avoid another election in late June.
Ossoff led the crowded 18-candidate field in Tuesday’s all-party contest to fill the seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. But because he didn't secure more than 50 percent of the vote, he will now compete in a runoff with the second-place finisher, Republican Karen Handel, on June 20.
Democratic hopes that Ossoff could win outright were buoyed early Tuesday evening by promising early vote returns, but Ossoff’s numbers dropped as more precincts tallied their results. Reports of technical glitches stemming from Fulton County delayed the results for hours as Ossoff hovered near 50 percent.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting early Wednesday morning, Ossoff had 48.1 percent, and Handel had 19.8 percent.
While Ossoff ran far better in the 6th District than any other Democrat has in decades, narrowly missing the runoff will be a disappointment for the party because it allows Republicans to unite behind one candidate. But Democrats are still heartened by the gains in the district.
Democrats rallied behind Ossoff, a 30-year-old investigative filmmaker, in the hopes that he could clear the field in one night and deliver a major upset in a district President Trump narrowly won in November. They aimed to make the special election a referendum on Trump and serve as an early indicator of the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats need to flip at least two dozen seats to take back the House majority.
Democrats harnessed their base's energy and ran a competitive race for a seat held by Republicans since the 1970s. Ossoff received an abundance of national support, including paid staffers from the House Democratic campaign arm, and he raised $8.3 million in three months.
Ossoff called out to those successes as he addressed supporters just before midnight, with the results still in flux.
“No matter what the outcome is tonight, whether we take it all or we fight on, we have defied the odds, we have shattered expectations,” he said.
“We are changing the world, and your voices are going to ring out across this state and across this country. We will be ready to fight on and win in June if it is necessary.”
New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, shared a similar message in a statement as he lauded Ossoff's lead.
"Ossoff has already defied the odds in this long-held Republican seat, and it’s clear that he has the enthusiasm and support he needs to be a very strong contender against Karen Handel in the runoff," he said.
“Not only are these results an indication of Ossoff’s impressive grassroots campaign and powerful economic message, it’s clear that voters strongly oppose Republican-controlled Washington and its priorities, and are ready to send more independent voices to Congress.”
For decades, Georgia’s 6th Congressional District had been a safe Republican seat. But Democrats have been licking their chops at the prospect of flipping the suburban Atlanta district ever since Trump won it by less than 2 percentage points in the presidential election.
As the race grew more heated and polls numbers showed Ossoff not far from 50 percent, Republicans grew nervous and poured millions of dollars into ad campaigns that attacked Ossoff as the “handpicked candidate” of House Democratic leadership in Washington and questioned his national security credentials. The pressure only increased after Democrats posted a strong showing last week in a special election for another House seat that had been seen as reliably red, Kansas’s 4th District.
Even Trump weighed in last-minute, recording a robocall to criticize Ossoff and tweeting that the Democrat is “super liberal."
Soon after CNN called the race a runoff around midnight, Trump tweeted at Ossoff’s expense.
“Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG 'R' win with runoff in Georgia. Glad to be of help!” he said.
Looking ahead to the runoff, Ossoff’s chances of winning the reliably conservative seat grow longer.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel previewed the party’s line of attack for the runoff in a statement that echoed Trump’s and chiding Democrats for “wasting millions of dollars.”
“Tonight, voters listened to President Trump’s call to reject the tax-and-spend, soft on crime policies of Jon Ossoff, and I’m confident they will do the same when they return to the polls to elect Karen Handel as the next congresswoman from Georgia’s 6th District,” she said.
“These liberal Democrats failed to inspire voters with a candidate who couldn’t even vote for himself, received 97 percent of his donations from outside the district, and consistently lied about his own weak resume."
Handel, a former Georgia secretary of State, was considered an early favorite for the GOP side of the race and led most polls.
She had the highest name recognition after two unsuccessful statewide bids and a high-profile resignation from Susan G. Komen for the Cure over the charity's Planned Parenthood funding.
Handel also endured the most intraparty attacks. The conservative Club for Growth, which endorsed GOP opponent Bob Gray, called her a “career politician." She also faced attacks from another fellow Republican, Dan Moody.
Updated at 6:02 a.m.