After all the hype, debate, analysis and money, the 6th Congressional District remains where it has been since 1979: in Republican hands.
Former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who trailed Democratic newcomer Jon Ossoff by more than 28 percentage points in the 18-candidate special election April 18, won the heads-up runoff Tuesday, June 20, with 51.9 percent (134,595 votes) to Ossoff’s 48.1 percent (124,893), according to unofficial but complete results.
“Tomorrow the real work will begin, the hard work of governing and doing so in a civil and responsible way that is in the best interest of every Georgian, every 6th District citizen and every citizen in the U.S.,” Handel said at her victory party at the Hyatt Regency at Villa Christina in Brookhaven.
The victory makes Handel the first Republican congresswoman in Georgia’s history and the first congresswoman of any party since Democrat Cynthia McKinney in 2006 lost a primary challenge from Hank Johnson, whose campaign included Ossoff while he was still a Georgetown University student.
Ossoff’s loss means that Georgia still awaits its first Jewish member of Congress since Democrat Elliott Levitas left office in 1985.
“This is the beginning of something much bigger. We showed them we can still build coalitions of people who don’t see eye to eye on everything, but rather than demonizing each other, we find common ground to move forward,” Ossoff said in his concession speech at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter Hotel in Sandy Springs. “Hope is still alive. The fight goes on.”
The four-month, two-election campaign to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price cost nearly $60 million, according to an Issue One analysis of all spending by and for candidates. That’s more than $130 for every registered voter in the district, more than $230 per vote cast and more than twice the price of what had been the most expensive U.S. House election.
Most of that money came from outside Georgia, with the Ossoff campaign receiving anti-Trump donations from around the nation and Handel benefiting from Republican super PACs trying to counter Ossoff’s fundraising edge. The cash influx was driven by national narratives related to President Donald Trump’s popularity and Democrats’ hopes to capture the House in 2018.
The suburban 6th District sweeps from East Cobb through North Fulton to North DeKalb. About 8 percent of the district is Jewish, representing 40 percent or more of the population of Jewish Atlanta. It has been held by Republicans since Newt Gingrich won the seat in 1978, although the district’s borders have changed dramatically since then.
“Karen Handel has a proven track record of success and fiscal responsibility, which I think is important to voters. Other issues cannot even begin to be addressed until we create a healthy economy,” East Cobb resident Adam Kaye said at the Handel celebration. “She is a passionate conservative, and that is the type of representative this district needs. Karen Handel has always been a supporter of Israel, and I don’t anticipate that changing one bit.”
It was a long night for those who campaigned for Ossoff, such as lawyer Matt Weiss, a member of the American Jewish Committee ACCESS steering board. Weiss said it was important to send a message to the Trump administration that even residents of a Republican district aren’t happy with what is happening in Washington.
“It’s obviously disappointing. It’s a very Republican district, so it’s always going to be tough,” Weiss said. “He made enormous progress in taking what was an 8- or 9-point Republican district and coming very close. Hopefully he’ll have another opportunity to do something else in politics.”
Shouts of “2018” came from the crowd during Ossoff’s speech. Handel will face re-election next year, with the party primaries scheduled for May. Georgia also will elect a new governor next year, and political analyst Matt Towery said Ossoff has jumped to the top of the Democratic field if he wants to run.
Handel reached out to Ossoff supporters. “I will work just as hard to earn your confidence in the weeks and months ahead,” she said. “I give every Georgian a promise to make this state and this country a better place to live. I pledge to be part of the solution and help put my experience to work.”
Handel said her top issues include creating more jobs for small businesses, assisting veterans, and enacting tax reform that lowers individual rates and repeals estate taxes.
“We have had a legacy of tremendous leadership in the 6th District,” Handel said, referencing her Republican predecessors, Gingrich, Johnny Isakson and Price. “These statesmen have created very big shoes to fill, and I will do my best to live up to the standards that they have set.”
Ossoff fell just short of the majority needed to win the congressional seat in the special election April 18, in which 11 Republicans, five Democrats and two independents appeared on the same ballot.
Ossoff received 48.1 percent — 92,673 of the 193,981 ballots cast. Handel got 19.8 percent with 38,071 votes, easily beating third-place Bob Gray, a fellow Republican, for the second runoff slot.
Fewer than 57,000 votes were cast early before the April 18 election, but more than 140,000 early votes — 2½ times as many — came in for the runoff, pointing to an unprecedented turnout for a special-election runoff. Roughly 57 percent of the ballots were cast early, preventing long lines at the polls Election Day.
Although voters faced torrential showers and flash flooding Tuesday, the vote total for the runoff exceeded the primary by more than 65,000, producing a turnout of 58 percent.
Earlier in the night, Rep. John Lewis told the crowd why he endorsed Ossoff at the start of the campaign, giving him the boost that gained him progressive financial support and separated him from the crowded primary field. “I believed in him because he is so sincere, so smart and very committed.”
An Ossoff win, Lewis said, “would send a strong message to the state of Georgia and to the nation that we are ready to move forward and not go back.”
Michael C. Owens, the Cobb County Democratic chairman, focused on how tough a time Republicans had in a district that elected Gingrich, Johnny Isakson and Price the past 40 years.
“If you look at us where we were a couple years ago to where we are today, it’s night and day,” Owens said. “I couldn’t be any more proud of the volunteers and community members and everyone that has really taken a part to make this really great for us.”
He added: “The 6th District was specifically drawn to be a Republican district. We’re building our capabilities to win a race in this district, and I believe we can win this district. As a whole, we did what we needed to do to win this election.”